Director Michael Almereyda imagines "Hamlet" taking place in present-day Manhattan with such vigor, insight and originality that the power and immediacy of his film makes Shakespeare accessible in an exciting and provocative manner beyond all expectations.
Best known for the stylish--though sometimes tedious--vampire picture "Najda," Almereyda has pared down the text but not changed a word of dialogue and makes it come alive in a world so fully realized visually that the play of words and fresh images against each other intensifies the tragedy, heightening meaning and emotion. And in Ethan Hawke he's found a superb Prince of Denmark: youthful, sensitive, passionate but with a mature grasp of the workings of human nature that inexorably yields tragic insight.
This "Hamlet" has the gritty look of an indie New York movie and proceeds with dispatch and economy. Denmark has become the Denmark Corp., a multimedia conglomerate, and Elsinore a luxury high-rise hotel. Hamlet is a shaggy, aspiring filmmaker in an environment in which, as Almereyda has said, "there's hardly a single scene without a camera, a photograph, a TV monitor or electronic recording device of some kind."
From all this modern technology he has created a visual language worthy of Shakespeare. And he has done so with wit: Here's Hamlet pacing the aisles of the action movies section of a Blockbuster store as he's beginning to wonder whether "to be or not to be. . . ." The Ghost (Sam Shepard) of Hamlet's father at one point disappears into a Pepsi machine. Spectacular high-rise penthouses, the grandly spiraling interior of the Guggenheim Museum, a laundry and a diner--these are the ultra-contemporary settings in which tragedy unfolds, accompanied by Carter Burwell's dynamic score, which incorporates a string ensemble with electronic loops and references to music inspired by "Hamlet" from Tchaikovsky to Nick Cave. John de Borman's harsh, vibrant cinematography, production designer Gideon Ponte's bold sense of scale and Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti's apt costumes are all crucial to the film's success.
Kyle MacLachlan's Claudius is every bit the modern corporate mogul: trim, well-tailored with a forceful manner underlined by the jut of his jaw. He's a man in his prime, and it's completely understandable how Diane Venora's sensual Gertrude could be overcome by him. Once the Ghost has appeared to ask his son to avenge him, this Hamlet doesn't hesitate but instead deliberates, deciding ultimately that he should not slay Claudius. Instead he confronts him with his guilt with his video, "The Mousetrap," a spot-on example of what a young filmmaker would create, incorporating reprocessed found footage, animation, etc., in an experimental style. But tragedy has been set in motion when Hamlet unwittingly kills Polonius (Bill Murray), hiding behind a sliding mirror-paneled wardrobe door.
Almereyda's stellar ensemble speaks in crisp standard American English. This helps invest meaning and emotion in the soaring poetic language that in some of its usage grows ever more distant from us. The cast succeeds admirably in this, and in creating characters at once contemporary and timeless.
Murray is a special marvel: His Polonius is a thoughtful family advisor, a concerned father to his lovely but fragile daughter Ophelia (Julia Stiles) and his son Laertes (Liev Schreiber). This Polonius is no fool, but a man who grows verbose in his nervousness at having to deliver bad news. Also on hand, impressively, are Karl Geary as Horatio and Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz and Dechen Thurman as Guildenstern.
A touch of the stentorian creeps into the line readings of the otherwise protean Schreiber, who effectively suggests a strain of incest in his loving concern for his sister. Shepard's strong, weathered features are fine for the Ghost, but he's the one person in the cast who seems a little uncomfortable with Shakespearean cadences.
Almereyda has pulled off a formidable coup: He's made Shakespeare come alive for contemporary audiences of all ages, especially young people. He's made a "Hamlet" they can connect with--but in no way pandering to them despite its present-day context.
* MPAA rating: R, for some violence. Times guidelines: violence depicted in a nonexploitative, matter-of-fact manner.
Ethan Hawke: Hamlet
Kyle MacLachlan: Claudius
Diane Venora: Gertrude
Julia Stiles: Ophelia
Bill Murray: Polonius
A Miramax Films presentation of a Double A Films production. Director Michael Almereyda. Producers Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby. Executive producers Jason Blum, John Sloss. Adapted from the play by William Shakespeare by Almereyda. Cinematographer John de Borman. Editor Kristina Boden. Music Carter Burwell. Costumes Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti. Production designer Gideon Ponte. Art director Jeanne Develle. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
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