(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: The president of the Denmark Corporation is dead… and already his wife is remarried to the man suspected of his murder! Nobody is more troubled by this than her son, Hamlet (Ethan Hawke). Now, after this hostile takeover, trust is impossible, passion is on the rise and vengeance is in the air.
– From DVD Production Notes
(Spoilers Ahead, But Come On, If You Don’t Know Already…)
Hamlet is one of those movies that fascinated me as a teenager, even though I couldn’t completely justify it. I had long been aware of the play, watching Kenneth Branagh’s uncut, four-hour version repeatedly when I was thirteen. I still know parts of Shakespeare’s speeches by heart, and this modern version only helped to commit them to memory.
Michael Almereyda’s modernized version followed in the wake of several updated Shakespeare adaptations, beginning with Baz Luhrmann’s experimental Romeo + Juliet (1996). In a way it’s successful in moving the story into the 21st century, yet from the opening scenes I can understand why people hate it. The film’s willingness to experiment is it strength as well as its downfall, and I suppose a viewer’s opinion of Ethan Hawke heavily influences what you’ll think of it.
Let’s start with what works. It’s strange how seamless the play transposes to another time and place, let alone how Almereyda uses technology as a part of his storytelling. This Hamlet utilizes surveillance footage, faxes, phone calls, video art and Polaroids to deliver soliloquies or provide plot points, and for the most part it succeeds. There is also a silent film quality to the scenes without dialogue. It adds something new to the expected, like watching Ophelia ask Hamlet for a rendezvous through a handwritten note.
Other shifts in story seem to suit this retelling quite well. Hawke’s Hamlet is a dabbling video artist, culling bits of other films for his screening of “The Mousetrap,” watching footage of Ophelia and his parents or self-indulgently taping himself. Not surprisingly his choice of subject matter escalates when he begins to lose himself.
At the same time there are modern intrusions that don’t work so well. I know for a fact that I’m not the first person to notice the heavy product placement in this film (seriously, the ghost of Hamlet’s father walks into a Pepsi One machine). There are moments where the voices of guru Thich Nhat Hanh and Eartha Kitt interrupt certain scenes, taking us out of the story.
And above all, there’s the notorious “To Be Or Not To Be” scene, which Almereyda (consciously, I might add) staged in a Blockbuster.
As I mentioned before, a viewer’s opinion of the film firmly rests with Hawke, and it’s more than likely that your perceptions of his career and celebrity will color your opinion. He plays Hamlet as a jaded, self-absorbed slacker-artist, which is how some tend to peg Hawke in the first place. Regardless, there are many shades of Hamlet to play, and I’d argue that this interpretation works. It’s even possible that Hawke may be playing with his public image through Hamlet, but that’s debatable.
However, it wasn’t Hawke that prompted me to see this in the first place. I was driven to see it because of its supporting cast, namely Julia Stiles taking on Ophelia and Bill Murray’s stunt casting as Polonius. Instead I was exposed to a range of performances, from the talented and unforgettable Diane Venora as Gertrude (her take on Act III, Scene IV is the best I’ve ever seen) to a boorish Steve Zahn and indifferent Dechen Thurman as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It also posits a world where Sam Shepard and Kyle MacLachlan could be brothers (but I suppose that works since Hamlet describes Claudius as “My father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules”).
Liev Schreiber fares better than most but his Laertes is so preoccupied with Ophelia their scenes brim with incestuous undertones. He steals a small butterfly comb from her hair during an embrace and is always uncomfortably close to her. When I first saw it I couldn’t decide whether he was directed that way or was somewhat taken with Stiles (it’s worth noting they went on to play husband and wife in the 2006 remake of The Omen). This time around I lean toward Almereyda’s direction but can’t make up my mind.
Then there’s Bill Murray, whose performance is divisive. In my case I loved his performance because he plays Polonius as the sycophantic, tiresome blowhard I always imagined him to be. I’ve had a soft spot for Murray since I was little and knew he would bring a dryness and levity to the character I had never seen before. Not surprisingly he did, all before the inevitable: being brutally shot in the face.
All in all Hamlet was- and remains- a mixed bag for me. Even though it’s been fourteen years the images concerning Ophelia remain the strongest for me, with or without dialogue. They still overshadow everything else and I’m not sure why. In 2001 I visited New York twice and looked for the fountain associated with her character. While researching this review I found further evidence that I wasn’t the only one. The image of her is undoubtedly part of my growing up, as well as parts of its soundtrack, in particular Michael Hurley’s “Wildegeeses” and Acceleradeck’s “Greentone.”
Aside from that there are aspects of the film that will always leave me wanting (Jeffrey Wright’s gravedigger scene being cut) or bothered (cutting a scene in half and inserting the latter part days later… but the characters are wearing the same clothes). At times there’s a theatricality in the blocking that’s better suited for the stage. And what was with Claudius’s main bodyguard? Can I just say he was terrible at his job?
I suppose that once everyone has (anticlimactically) killed each other an inept bodyguard is the least of this film’s problems. Its epilogue mirrors the final scene of Romeo + Juliet, in which the tragedy is summarized by a newscaster. Although it’s derivative it’s effective, using lines I’m sure no other version of Hamlet has chosen as its last.
For some reason those words have stayed with me a long time. In fact, re-watching this made me realize its imperfections and prompted me to search for more upon seeing it. There was limited press before and after its release, and the little I found revolved around Stiles, her costumes (tons of red, white and black) as well as her experiences on set. She revealed that she threw up after shooting Ophelia’s drowning scene, and years later that she had an intense crush on Hawke during filming, which troubled her since he was married at the time. This only heightened their scenes upon seeing it again.
But overall what strikes me the most was how Hamlet tried to expand and shrink Shakespeare’s universe at the same time. In a way it succeeds, in others it fails, and yes, it could have been different or better- but it’s still an intriguing effort.