Hamlet

In recent years, what once seemed a revisionist interpretation has become something of a convention: playing Shakespeare's least active protagonist as a virtual dynamo of indecision. Onscreen, Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh both emphasized Hamlet's youthful vigor, impetuousness and aggression.

With:
Hamlet - Ethan Hawke
Claudius - Kyle MacLachlan
Ghost - Sam Shepard
Gertrude - Diane Venora
Polonius - Bill Murray
Laertes - Liev Schreiber
Ophelia - Julia Stiles
Horatio - Karl Geary
Marcella - Paula Malcomson
Rosencrantz - Steve Zahn
Guildenstern - Dechen Thurman
Barnardo - Rome Neal
Gravedigger - Jeffrey Wright
Osric - Paul Bartel
Fortinbras - Casey Affleck

In recent years, what once seemed a revisionist interpretation has become something of a convention: playing Shakespeare’s least active protagonist as a virtual dynamo of indecision. Onscreen, Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh both emphasized Hamlet’s youthful vigor, impetuousness and aggression. As one might expect, Ethan Hawke offers a somewhat different take — hoo boy, his Dane is thinky and then some. In fact, he is the very model of a modern moping malcontent. This slacker prince forms a sinkhole at the center of adaptor-helmer Michael Almereyda’s otherwise compelling contempo update. Conceptually vivid, if schematic, and bolstered by some fine support performances, pic ends up a sporadically striking framework for an oft-ludicrous, immediately postdated portrait. Expect problematic reviews to stir middling arthouse biz for Miramax’s May release.If nothing else, feature reps a career-visibility peak for Almereyda , whose erratic low-to-no-budget projects (“Twister,” “Another Girl Another Planet,” “Nadja,” “Trance”) have hitherto met with limited exposure at best. “Hamlet” establishes a visual language that’s half high urban gloss, half technophilic “poor cinema”: After cold nighttime images establish Hotel Elsinor as the nucleus of Times Square 2000, a scroll informs us that “the King and CEO of Denmark Corp. is dead.”

Meanwhile, Hamlet watches himself reciting the “What a piece of work is man” speech in pixelvision on a laptop. Elsewhere, TV screens, faxes, answering machines and other electronic media are deployed to convey information — including the few droll departures here from Shakespearean text.

Already angst-ridden, Hawke’s Hamlet confesses to seeing his late father “in my mind’s eye.” But that apparition takes more concrete form once Horatio (Karl Geary) reports that a ghost has been glimpsed pacing the “castle’s” halls — or rather showing up on its elevator surveillance cameras. Soon the King (Sam Shepard) is spied before a basement Pepsi dispenser, then calling for vengeance amid the collegiate disarray of his son’s apartment.

Bad news, bad timing. At a press conference, royal widow Gertrude (Diane Venora) has just announced her wedlock to second-in-command Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan); their happy domestic and administrative liaison looks suspicious, given that still-warm corpse of ambiguous cause.

At first, Hamlet’s doubts fester from a distance as he goads his mother and stepdad’s minions. First to be baffled is possible squeeze Ophelia (Julia Stiles), whose earnest overtures are rebuffed — especially once she’s caught packing a wiretap. More righteously offended are her brother, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), and father, Polonius (Bill Murray).

The couple upstairs remain wary but calm until Hamlet presents their criminal prologue: He invites all to a self-helmed “video/play” that hilariously demonstrates better living through poisonous chemistry. This avant-garde collage of 1950s educational reels and computer graphics is Almereyda’s biggest coup, and the court’s most public scandal.

But mostly Hamlet stews alone. When Claudius dispatches flunkies Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman) to draw the prince out of his funk — however duplicitously — Hamlet dispatches them instead. Further outbursts lead to a rooftop climax in which the aggrieved parties drop like flies. Denmark Corp.’s new regime is announced via telecast, as intoned by PBS commentator Jim Lehrer.

A great deal of text has been usefully cut (most aggressively in this final set piece), but the play’s tension and focus remain intact. There’s even a cinematic precedent for Almereyda’s corporate interpretation: He’s acknowledged the influence of Aki Kaurismaki’s “Hamlet Goes Business” (1987), among other liberal spins. A faint futurism informs everything here, linking individual psychology and government politics to the cold pragmatism of consumerist technology.

No scene lacks for staging audacity: Ophelia freaks out at a Guggenheim opening, Hamlet monologues in the “Action” aisle at Blockbuster. A few late pacing lapses aside, Almereyda keeps each composition, edit and nuance almost hypnotically relevant to his New World Order milieu.

Yet the gap between credible concept and sometimes laughably pretentious result gapes wildly, always at the mercy of performance. Hawke — whom helmer credited at Sundance preem as project’s co-instigator — has provided a still center to too many somber narratives of late (“Gattaca,” “Great Expectations,” “Snow Falling on Cedars”). Whenever cast as the saint of infinite longing, he absorbs emotions without giving any back; perversely, he’s seemed far more alert when playing likable louts, especially the Slightly Ugly American in “Before Sunrise” and soused brother in “The Newton Boys.”

His Hamlet inhabits a self-parodying middle ground. This Dane sulks in regulation black, shades and a grunger’s knit cap, with three-day goatee. His signature sad-puppy expression suggests no thought more pained than “I can’t believe you hated my guitar solo.” The language sits uneasily on his tongue, with “To be or not to be” delivered in a just-rolled-outta-bed Malkovich mumble that defies close listening. When he pumps up the volume for later tantrums, it feels like Method hot air.Stiles, no stranger to teen-angst Shakespeare (e.g., ” 10 Things I Hate About You”), likewise flounders in petulance; at least her schoolgirlish Ophelia meets a visually arresting end. Murray again drags star baggage into the character-actor realm — his comic humiliation is peerless when Polonius “narcs” to his bosses, but elsewhere a wiseguy distance rings false. Schreiber has recently played an acclaimed stage Hamlet himself. This may explain why Laertes comes off as a whiner and nag, in pic’s most stilted turn.

On the plus side, Venora (a legit Ophelia — and cross-dressed Dane) is striking as a Gertrude who’s more “suit” than mother, yet guilt-free as either. Casting MacLachlan as duplicitous corporate smoothie Claudius is a brilliant stroke; ditto Shepard, a typically recessive actor who’s seldom exhibited such force.

Geary’s strong Horatio is wanly shadowed by a near-mute Marcella (Paula Malcomson). As the two more expendable sidekicks, an antic Zahn and vague Thurman are best seen but not heard, or vice versa — their humor only works when indirect.

Never dull, but never quite engrossing, this “Hamlet” owes most of its moment-to-moment effectiveness to a rigorously packaged whole. Interiors in Gideon Ponte’s production design are all chrome, glass and off-white Scandinavian modern. Minimalist elegance is likewise key to John De Borman’s lensing. Carter Burwell contributes an urgent small-orchestral score that’s abetted on rare occasions by trip-hop and classical excerpts.

All tech aspects belie budget limitations, or turn them to advantage. Indeed, pic is an almost airtight vessel — albeit with something tragically ridiculous in the hold.

Hamlet

Production: A Miramax presentation of a Double A Films production. Produced by Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby. Executive producers, Jason Blum, John Sloss. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Screenplay, Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare.

Crew: Camera (color/B&W), John De Borman; editor, Kristina Boden; music, Carter Burwell; music supervisor, Beth Amy Rosenblatt; production designer, Gideon Ponte; art director, Jeanne Develle; set decorators, Jeffrey Everett, Joshua Drew; costumes, Luca Mosca, Marco Cattoretti; sound (Dolby Digital), Noah Vivekanand; line producer, Callum Greene; assistant directors, Chip Signore, Marco Londoner; assistant camera, Cyril Thomas. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 24, 2000. Running time: 111 MIN.

With: Hamlet - Ethan Hawke
Claudius - Kyle MacLachlan
Ghost - Sam Shepard
Gertrude - Diane Venora
Polonius - Bill Murray
Laertes - Liev Schreiber
Ophelia - Julia Stiles
Horatio - Karl Geary
Marcella - Paula Malcomson
Rosencrantz - Steve Zahn
Guildenstern - Dechen Thurman
Barnardo - Rome Neal
Gravedigger - Jeffrey Wright
Osric - Paul Bartel
Fortinbras - Casey Affleck

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