Hamlet

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

HAMLET

6/10

US 2000
dir/scr Michael Almereyda (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
cin John de Borman
stars Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Bill Murray, Diane Venora
123 minutes

Hamlet updated to millennial Manhattan, with Hawke as a goateed slacker ‘prince’ – on paper, a promising blend of Aki Kaurismaki’s Hamlet Goes Business, with the kingdom of Denmark turning into the family firm, and Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet: modern dress, fancy visuals, Shakespeare’s text. Nice idea – pity it just doesn’t work. While Luhrmann wallowed in colourful Hispanic excess, Almereyda heads north, bathing his picture in icy blue neons, stark Arctic whites, chilly metallic sheens. Michael Mann territory, in other words – we even get Diane Venora popping up as Gertrude. But Almereyda misses the point – Mann would never allow his stylish visuals to be undermined by these lapses of attention and judgement.

Barely have we been told that this is ‘Manhattan, 2000’ than the camera catches posters for True Crime and other movies of similar vintage. Next, Kyle MacLachlan’s opening speech as Claudius is marred by some atrocious dubbing. Many critics have praised the drollery of staging Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in a video store, with the Prince moping around the ‘action’ aisles – but which branch of Blockbuster would classify the likes of Gone With The Wind, Now Voyager and The Third Man as action movies?

These flubs are offputting enough, but are very small beer alongside Almereyda’s major miscalculation, the decision to retain Shakespeare’s language. We get bogged down in the endless convoluted patter, result in a paceless, oddly uncinematic viewing experience – ironic, given Almereyda’s relentlessly visual approach. The plot comes across as convoluted and implausible, and sticking to the text produces an inordinate amount of dumbshow ‘improvisations’ as Almereyda strives for new twists to the old tale. In any case, the characters’ anachronistic lingo jars alongside the ‘samples’ of modern speech that stray in: a lama’s interview on TV; Eartha Kitt’s recorded voice advising taxi passengers to wear their seatbelts.

Not that any of this is the actors’ fault. There are no weak links – Hawke makes a refreshingly youthful Hamlet, though he should burn that dopey ski cap, and he’s just shaded by Liev Schreiber’s bull-headed Laertes – Schreiber recently played Hamlet on stage in New York, and perhaps a slight edge of resenment gives his peformance that extra bit of punch. Julia Stiles’ sulky Ophelia and Sam Shephard’s snaggletoothed, Lincolnesque old Hamlet also make an impact, but blink and you’ll miss Jeffrey Wright’s singing gravedigger – perverse “use” of a terrific actor.

Perversity – or at least boundary-pushing originality – is, of course, what you’d expect from a director with Almereyda’s experimental background. And Hamlet’s trawling of video and internet images does throw up the occasional pearl – startling glimpses of Brandon Lee in The Crow, Barbara Steele, Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness and, best of all, James Dean, silently shrugging his shoulders in response to Hawke’s plea for advice. These touches make you think his video version of The Mousetrap, the play within the play, is going to be some wild, Parallax View-style trip – but it’s a big disappointment, drab and ordinary when what we want is to be dazzled and blasted. A missed opportunity – just like the movie.

by Neil Young
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