IN HIS BOOK, the vastly influential Shakespeare Our Contemporary, the Polish critic Jan Kott argued that Shakespeare has a rare gift to reflect the social issues, personal struggles, and zeitgeist of our times—just as he did the Elizabethan era. This thesis has received plenty of positive support from such stagings as Richard III in a fascist Britain, Measure for Measure in a concentration camp, and (no, I'm not making this up) Cymbeline in a postapocalyptic science fiction setting.
directed by Michael Almereyda
with Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Kyle MacLachlan, Diana Venora, Sam Shepard, and Bill Murray
opens June 2 at Varsity
But moviegoers have seen little of such radical reinterpretations; hence some of the hoopla when Kenneth Branagh does something like his 1930s movie musical version of Love's Labour's Lost (opening here in two weeks). Director Michael Almereyda's new take on Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke as the melancholy Dane, is much more audacious in its thinking, and for the first half of this film, set in modern-day New York, he's pulled off something that's really quite bloody, bold, and resolute.
In Almereyda's adaptation, Denmark is not a kingdom but a corporation, one recently usurped by the villainous Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) after the mysterious death of its founder, his brother the elder Hamlet (Sam Shepard, who's aging into quite a ferociously craggy presence). He's also married Hamlet's old widow Gertrude (the skilled and still very sexy Diane Venora) and successfully resisted a hostile take-over bid from the Norway Corporation, which leaves Hamlet Jr. out in the cold.
Not that young Hamlet seems very interested in becoming chairman of the board anytime soon. Hawke's brooding young prince is an aspiring filmmaker, obsessively watching footage of his late father and of his love, the fair Ophelia (Julia Stiles), and given to wandering the streets with a bleak look and a very silly looking cap on his head.
THE ROLE OF HAMLET tends to take everything an actor throws at it. Unfortunately, these are fairly limited resources in the case of Hawke, who hasn't really expanded his range much from his Dead Poets Society days. His less-is-more approach to emotion tends to make him look not just broody but positively nauseous. His passive sulking makes one question if Ophelia's statement about his "noble mind" is simply a schoolgirl fantasy. Simply put, he seems less prince and courtier than the sort of coffee-shop poseur who'll bore you with his endless opinions about indie film.
Nonetheless, the sheer cleverness and audacity of Almereyda's reworking of the text initially keeps one from being too disappointed by its protagonist. Ophelia is not just overheard in her conference with Hamlet, she's literally "wired for sound" by her father. Hamlet's false buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report back to their chief over his speakerphone, and the ghost of Hamlet Senior vanishes into a Pepsi machine. Almereyda's cuts to the material are drastic but intelligent, and in the main his actors, from Bill Murray as Polonius to Liev Schreiber as the vengeful Laertes, handle the language well and without bombast.
But the director's inventiveness starts to run dry as he comes to terms with what isn't contemporary about Hamlet—most notably the revenge tragedy plot. When Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake, why should the villainous Claudius bundle him onto a jet with orders for his death instead of just handing the insolent pup over to the cops? Even more bizarrely, what's all this about Hamlet engaging young Laertes in a duel over a bet involving some "Barbary horses?" This may seem like caviling, but if Almereyda's willing to substitute faxes for heralds and Macs for sealed orders, he should have ironed out the details of his Hamlet more thoroughly. Though this work has isolated moments of brilliance, in the end it's not the brazenness of the adaptation that's disappointing, but the lack of courage in seeing its convictions through.