Holy moly! Yet another version of Hamlet? Will they never stop?
Ah well, at least Michael Almereyda's new adaptation is one of those really different takes on the venerable play. While the last two widely seen versions — the 1990 Mel Gibson/Franco Zeffirelli film and the four-hour-plus 1996 Kenneth Branagh/ Kenneth Branagh version — were relatively straight adaptations, Almereyda has moved the story to contemporary New York City, with high-rises and cell phones and fax machines and noisy rock clubs. What with Ethan Hawke in the lead, it's a good thing, too. Most Hamlets are conceived as vehicles for the star to strut his stuff. The notion of a Hawke vanity production of the play is too embarrassing to think about — right up there with Ted “Love Boat's Isaac” Lange's 1989 Othello. (Which, to be fair, this reviewer has never seen. Has anyone?) Indeed, Hawke seems to have very little stuff to strut here, but at least we have Almereyda's anachronisms to keep us amused.
Almereyda sets the scene with no dawdling, opening with the brightest, most garish possible night view of New York, the city looking something like Blade Runner's futuristic Los Angeles. A night watchman at the giant Denmark Corp. sees the ghost of the company's recently deceased president (Sam Shepard) wandering the hallways. Together with Horatio (Karl Geary), he passes the word to the president's son, Hamlet (Hawke), who is first brooding over his father's death and then brooding over his own brooding — all recorded on his computer screen in low-resolution images.
Hamlet confronts the ghost, who informs him that he was murdered by his own brother, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). Claudius has already commandeered both the corporation and the affections of the ghost's wife, Gertrude (Diane Venora). While Hamlet tries to figure out how to avenge his father, he also woos longtime sweetie Ophelia (Julia Stiles), a seemingly underage, Nike-wearing waif whose father, Polonius (Bill Murray), is an executive with Denmark Corp.
Well, you know how most of the story traditionally goes, and you can readily predict most of Almereyda's updatings. Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman) are a couple of Hamlet's old stoner buddies. Instead of staging a play to trap Claudius, Hamlet invites him to a screening of a video he's directed. He shoots Polonius rather than stabbing him.
Other mutations are less obvious. One of the soliloquies is replaced by a Buddhist lecture on TV. “To be or not to be” is more or less a throwaway line, as Hamlet strolls through a video store, surrounded by aisle signs inscribed “ACTION,” while the distinctly sub-Hamlet revenge film Crow 2: City of Angels plays in the background.
All this fiddling around with the setting is cute, and it might work if Almereyda were playing it strictly for laughs. But for the most part he's serious, and the result is likely to satisfy no one. This sort of revisionist updating of Shakespeare is nothing new: It surfaces whenever young directors look for a flashy way to restage overly familiar material (Orson Welles practically built his career on this stuff).
On film, it's an approach that's been particularly active recently: Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, Gil Junger's 10 Things I Hate About You (from The Taming of the Shrew), and the upcoming O (from Othello) all take a page from West Side Story's book. How much longer before we see a suburban teen version of King Lear?
Almereyda, who did clever updates of Dracula in Nadja (1994) and The Mummy in The Eternal (1999), makes way too many wrong choices here. The most instructive comparison is with Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's 1987 Hamlet Goes Business, to which Almereyda owes a great debt — and which, to his credit, he openly acknowledges. Both directors make parallel changes of setting and character; but Kaurismaki, realizing that the effect is inevitably funny, made his version a deadpan comedy.
Kaurismaki was also wise enough to drop Shakespeare's language. (That it would have been in Finnish translation may have made the decision easier.) Almereyda has his characters speaking traditional Shakespearean English, while wandering around in modern dress. The problem is not merely the seeming incongruity of tone. At times the visuals actually contradict the dialogue: e.g., we see a copy of USA Today with a headline proclaiming Claudius' takeover of the corporation, while everyone is talking about The King. It's just weird — and distracting.
Almereyda certainly makes unusual cuts as well, though it must be said that, with the exception of Branagh's complete version, nearly all screen Hamlets have cuts that compromise the play's effectiveness. Not only does Almereyda more or less drop the “To be or not to be” business, he even tosses out the gravedigger scene, replacing the play's cleverest dialogue with a single digger singing “All Along the Watchtower” to himself.
He also makes a couple of inexplicable line changes. Just as in Branagh's film, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy” becomes “… in our philosophy,” rendering the line substantially less snotty. (Did both directors decide to make this odd change independently? Or did Almereyda simply look at the Branagh more than at the actual text?) Likewise, Almereyda has Ophelia say “… recks not his own creed” rather than “… recks not his own rede.” While not one in a hundred in a contemporary audience will have the foggiest notion of what would constitute recking one's own rede, changing “rede” to “creed” doesn't really improve the situation. Or was someone afraid that “… recks his own rede” would cause giggling by reminding people of a well-known third-rate film critic?
Of course, most Hamlets rise and fall largely on the performance of the star, and Hawke is simply not up to the task: He has neither the charisma nor the gravitas to pull it off, nor is he an accomplished enough actor. He comes across like a pale imitation of Tom Cruise, who would have been better in the part (if we could only forget that he's Tom Cruise).
The other actors are a mixed bag. Murray always does great work in supporting roles and he should have been perfect for a modern Polonius, but, alas, he seems completely at sea here. This is Stiles' second modernized Shakespeare outing — she was the shrew who got tamed in 10 Things I Hate About You — and she's even worse this time. Zahn, playing somewhat the same character as in Out of Sight, is perfect as a seemingly drug-addled Rosencrantz. As Laertes, Liev Schreiber, who clearly has done Shakespeare before, comes off handily the best. And MacLachlan, who has usually been disappointing when not being directed by David Lynch, is surprisingly good; his gives Claudius the same sort of banal, selfish corporate evil that Fred MacMurray brilliantly embodied in The Apartment.
Still, despite the few good performances, this Hamlet is not a keeper.