Hamlet (2000)

This is undoubtedly the first screen rendition of Hamlet in which “Blockbuster Clerk” appears among the character names in the credits. Shakespeare, of course, failed to write any dialogue for the mute Blockbuster Clerk; in an equally stunning failure, he neglected to set any scenes in a laundromat, as this new movie does. Lest any of this sound ridiculous — a youth-chasing MTV Bard spectacle á la 1996’s Romeo + Juliet — bear in mind that this Hamlet, directed on the cheap by Michael Almereyda, is in its own way as honorable and serious an attempt as Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. True, it’s also not completely successful, but then neither was Branagh’s version, which pointlessly included the pointless bits of the play in its thirst to film everything. This new Hamlet tosses out scenes by the dozen, and works quite well as a stripped-down, modern-dress vision of Shakespeare.

We’re in “New York, 2000,” where the young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) slouches around in a haze of depression and contempt. His father (Sam Shepard), the CEO of Manhattan’s thriving Denmark Corporation, has just died, and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) has jumped quite happily — too happily — into the arms of his uncle, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). Hawke, moping fashionably into the camera, turns out to be a feasible melancholy Dane for this uptown Hamlet. Hawke doesn’t get Kenneth Branagh’s dynamism, but Branagh didn’t get Hawke’s nihilistic despair. Put the two together and you might have the perfect Hamlet (who is said to be perhaps the most unplayable character ever written — an actor is lucky to get a bit of it down). Hawke’s Hamlet also makes artsy videos (of himself and others), which we see a lot of, and which I could’ve done with a little less of.

Almereyda (who made the experimental vampire film Nadja) and his cinematographer John de Borman walk the line between sleek and grungy; they seem equally at home in Claudius’ well-groomed offices and in Hamlet’s VHS-littered pit. At first, as always, it’s a bit jarring to hear Shakespeare’s words coming from people in modern dress, and when Claudius makes his first speech he waves a copy of that morning’s USA Today, with a blaring cover story on Fortinbras. (Even the eagle-eyed may not identify Fortinbras as Ben Affleck’s brother Casey.) But none of it comes across as gimmicky; the movie is almost playful in its mission to burrow around inside Hamlet and discover what’s still relevant about it.

Some of the actors are playful, too. Bill Murray’s reading of Polonius’ famous advice is a little too recitatory — he reminded me of when I had to memorize it for school and rattled it off to a bored teacher — but when he sends Laertes off with “The time invites you. Go!”, it sounds like pure Murray; he could almost be saying “Geddouda here, ya nut.” Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora make a great, glittering dark couple, devoted to the pleasures of the rich. (Claudius belongs in a limo with tinted windows.) Julia Stiles is a fine, sullen Ophelia — she and Hamlet are the Prozac twins — and comes up with an amazing breakdown scene at the Guggenheim. Even the raffish Steve Zahn (Out of Sight) turns up as a party-boy Rosencrantz; he’s incongruously terrific, as is Paula Malcomson as “Marcella” (yes, Horatio’s soldier acquaintance has had a sex change).

Hamlet drives steadily and forcefully to its traditionally bloody conclusion, in which Hamlet and Laertes (Liev Schreiber gives a surprisingly imposing performance) duel it out; Almereyda manages to toss in a gun on top of the usual swords and poison. Before that, there’s a nicely telescoped scene in which Hamlet, in lieu of having a band of players enact his guilt-inducing play, puts together his own video pastiche pointing a finger at the murderer of his father. This video, unlike the other Hamlet snippets we’ve seen, has genuine power; what could have been artsy and pretentious instead cuts to the quick. By and large, the same is true of Almereyda’s movie.

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