Hamlet, 2000. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray, Liev Shreiber.

The strangest version of Hamlet I have ever seen was the movie, Strange Brew, which cast Doug and Bob McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) as Rozencrantz and Guildenstern, attempting to defraud Elsinore Brewery with the old mouse in the beer bottle routine, only to get involved with the intrigues of the brewery's ruling family.  The newest screen version of Hamlet could learn something from Strange Brew. That movie realized the essential absurdity of its premise and played it for laughs. The latest updating of the play to hit the silver screen casts the woefully inadequate Ethan Hawke as The Melancholy Dane and removes the action from medieval Denmark to modern New York.

The head of the Denmark Corporation has perished under questionable circumstances. His brother has married his widow and assumed the leadership of the company. His son, Hamlet, is depressed and angry about these turns of events and broods in his hotel room at the Elsinore Hotel, endlessly watching the videotape he makes when he ventures forth. The nightwatchman at the hotel comes to Hamlet with a report of the ghost of Hamlet's father seen wandering the halls at night. Inevitably, the ghost contacts him. Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, murdered Hamlet's father to take his wife and his company as his own. Hamlet goes ballistic. He needs evidence to back up the ghost's accusation. To this end, he makes a short film which reinacts the deed. "The play's the thing to catch the conscience of the king," you see, and he hopes ot catch Claudius out with it. The downside of this is that once the film is over, Claudius knows that Hamlet knows and they play a game of cat and mouse as each manouevers to do in the other. In the end, everyone dies.

As I said, Ethan Hawke is wholly inadequate as Hamlet. The film turns on his performance, and fails at its hands. He stumbles over familiar lines and mumbles or hisses many of them, rendering them all but incomprehensible (Hawke is not alone in this style of performance--Sam Sheppard as Hamlet's father is equally incomprehensible, but at least has screen presence to make up for it; and Julia Stiles's Ophelia seems like the work of an overly bright high school actress). Parts of the film are extremely well cast: Kyle MacLachlan would not have been my first (or fifth) choice for Claudius, but he excells in the role. Bill Murray's Polonius is perfectly cast (and who knew that Murray could do Shakespeare?). The best performance in the movie is Liev Shreiber's Laertes, who not only has screen presence, but, alone of the cast, actually seems comfortable speaking Elizabethan dialogue in a modern setting.

Add to the problems with casting some relatively half-baked ideas: The "To Be, Or Not To Be" soliloquy takes place in the Action section of a Blockbuster Video store (Get it?), Ophelia always seems to be photographed near water (with a waterfall behind her when we first see her). Hamlet's hat simply looks goofy. The graveyard scene is absent, save for a shot of a gravedigger who is singing "All Along The Watchtower" as he digs. The movie isn't very subtle in its choice of symbols.

In the end, the play's the thing. What virtues this film has stem from a relatively faithful rereading of the text of the play. The story is more or less unchanged and it is the main strength of the movie, but Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ!! What is the point of this movie? By remaining slavishly faithful to the text of the play, the whole reason behind updating it to present day New York is undermined. What we are left with is the primacy of William Shakespeare and the inadequacy of independent filmmakers and marginal Hollywood stars to make themselves equal to the task of reinterpreting him.


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