It’s not every day that you encounter a Hamlet in which you hear the voice of Mr. Moviefone. Or hear To be or not to be recited as the Prince of Denmark (Ethan Hawke) wanders the Action section at Blockbuster Video. It’s also not often that you catch the ghost of Hamlet’s father (Sam Shepard) disappearing into a Pepsi machine. Yet these dissonances, seemingly facetious, are also weirdly apt. Michael Almereyda, who directed the film in super 16-mm. and did the stripped-down, contemporary adaptation, sets the play in a ghastly, gleaming, fortresslike New York that is all video monitors and mirrored surfaces and product logos. Hamlet is a play about paranoia (along with a million other things), and this latest movie incarnation – coming after the Zeffirelli-Mel Gibson drearfest and Kenneth Branagh’s bigger, longer, and uncut version – readily lends itself to a high-tech consumerist culture where everyone is watching and being watched. No matter how covert their designs, everybody will be found out.
Denmark here is not a country but a megaconglomerate whose CEO, Claudius (Kyle McLachlan), has the square-jawed forthrightness of a captain of industry. In other words, he’s already a villain even without the added bonus of being the murderer of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet is a tatty romantic who slumps his way about the city in a furiously alienated funk. He’s the most grad-student-ish of all movie Hamlets, and also, I believe, the youngest: a Reality Bites Hamlet and a hippie Hamlet, too, with some James Dean thrown in. (Dean’s image is invoked in the movie.) The more one sees of this loquacious moper, the more he resembles a refugee from the counterculture wars. Corporatism in this movie is the big bad wolf. At large in a global media culture, Hamlet is as dewy a rebel as any flower-powered precursor. A would-be digital filmmaker, he fights the enemy with its own weapons: His version of The Mousetrap, the play-within-the-play that captures Claudius’s conscience and leaves him aghast, is rendered here as a movie-within-a-movie.
If the success of any Hamlet ultimately rests on the quality of its lead performance, then Almereyda’s version is middling. Hawke isn’t terrible. His lines are delivered unaffectedly, in a way that allows the poetry to come through without seeming either too familiar or arch. Plus, as he also demonstrated in Richard Linklater’s neglected Before Sunrise, he has a scruffy, moonstruck quality that works well all by itself. But it’s difficult to find a way into Hamlet’s torrential musings in a production as overstocked as this one. Hawke doesn’t have the formidableness to break through the jabber of experimental-film imagery and shock cuts and surfaces reflecting back on surfaces. Maybe no actor could have broken through. But what is missing from this performance, and this production, is the sense that Hamlet is, as Mark Van Doren wrote, “trying to be more than a man can possibly be.”
At times it seems as if Hamlet were a bit player in his own extravaganza, a counterpart to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This effect may be intentional, of course, but that doesn’t make it laudable. There is a tendency to overpraise Shakespeare productions (whether for stage or film) proffering some imposing, overarching concept, as if the only way to prove his universality is to bend his drama into a Möbius strip of newfangled meanings. There are times in this new Hamlet, as with so many other hepped-up Shakespearean productions, when I just wanted to clear the decks of all the conceptualizing and folderol and get back to the beauty of the lines, of the emotions. Sometimes the most radical way to interpret a text is simply to serve it up unadorned.
Nevertheless, this Hamlet is not a movie to place beside, say, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or similar travesties. Almereyda isn’t pandering to youth the way that film did. You can be less than ecstatic about what he’s trying for here and still respect the attempt. By equating the garish feudalism of the play’s original setting with the megalopolis of today’s New York, he’s at least on the right track. The problem is, it’s just about his only track. And for New Yorkers, the equation between the two may be less than shocking anyway. So what else is new?
There are still plenty of reasons to check out this new Hamlet. There’s a marvelous mad scene in which Ophelia (a Fiona Appleish-looking Julia Stiles) screams like a banshee within the coiled tiers of the Guggenheim. If Ethan Hawkes’s performance doesn’t carry the day, there are others that do, chiefly Liev Schreiber’s elegantly seething Laertes, Sam Shepard’s rude, startlingly present Ghost, Diane Venora’s Gertrude, and (yes) Bill Murray’s Polonius. Murray gives his lines a slightly skewed twist that makes them seem both eccentric and naturalistic. His Polonius is a voluble old fud who is also immensely touching; his murder is the only time in the film when one feels a life has been taken away. Diane Venora is the cast’s most experienced Shakespearean performer – she once played the Melancholy Dane for Joe Papp and recently returned to Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival as Gertrude opposite Liev Schreiber’s Hamlet – and she demonstrates yet again that she is one of the most gifted (and underused) actresses around. Her Gertrude is both solicitous and passionate, a queen gravely troubled by what is going on all around her and inside herself. She is a worthy counterpart to Hamlet, and her depth-charged brooding makes it clearer than ever how closely blood-linked this woman is to her son. For all of Almereyda’s nouveau overconceptualizing, his Hamlet ultimately comes down to a story about a boy and his mother.