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Pick of the Week: Hamlet

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Length: 123 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some violence

There have been dozens of screen versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet over the years, but writer-director Michael Almereyda’s edgy, briskly paced, visually stunning adaptation is one of the most entertaining and accessible ever. As is customary in adaptations of Shakespeare, Almereyda preserves the Bard’s original dialogue. But the time of the classic drama is moved forward to the year 2000 and the place is changed to New York City.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complex and uncut versions require about four hours to perform, so like nearly all screen versions--Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version being a notable exception--Almereyda’s adaptation has made drastic cuts and simplifications. Almereyda’s concept of Hamlet is basically that it is the tragic story of two families. But Shakespeare’s notion that Hamlet is also the story of a national tragedy for the people of Denmark is completely missing in Almereyda’s version, where Denmark isn’t the name of a country at all--it’s the name of a corporation.

Shakespeare’s Elsinore Castle is transformed into the posh Hotel Elsinore, where all the principal characters apparently reside. Living in what seems to be the penthouse suite are young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), his uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora). Living in what is apparently another part of the hotel is single parent Polonius (Bill Murray) with his daughter Ophelia (Julia Stiles) and son Laertes (Liev Schreiber). All the members of these two families will be dead by the end of the film.

After some moody establishing shots and a little dialogue, the story gets underway in a large conference room. As the new CEO of Denmark Corporation, Claudius is giving a presentation about recent developments, including the death of his brother Old Hamlet, who was the company’s former CEO. Claudius also calls attention to the presence of his new wife Gertrude, widow of his late brother. Then, Claudius shows the audience a copy of U.S.A. Today featuring the headline "Fortinbras makes bid for Denmark Corporation." To the applause of the audience, which is apparently comprised mainly of Denmark Corporation stakeholders, Claudius rips the newspaper in half.

Young Hamlet has returned home from school, and we soon see him brooding in his room over his mother’s hasty remarriage to his uncle, "Frailty, thy name is woman." But it’s not long before Hamlet’s friend Horatio and Horatio’s live-in girlfriend Marcella (based loosely on Shakespeare’s male character Marcellus) tell Hamlet they saw his father Old Hamlet (Sam Shepard) on one of the hotel’s security video monitors. They say they pursued Old Hamlet, but as they neared him, he disappeared into a Pepsi machine. Eventually, young Hamlet is visited by his father’s ghost, who tells him of the "Murder most foul."

The film gradually introduces the other tragic family in the story, namely that of Polonius, who is evidently a top advisor to the CEO of Denmark Corporation. Polonius’ son Laertes has come home from school for a short stay because of Old Hamlet’s death, and before Laertes goes back, Polonius gives him the advice, "To thine own self be true." Polonius’ daughter Ophelia has a troubled romantic relationship with Hamlet, and he eventually leaves the message "Get thee to a nunnery!" on her answering machine. Later, Ophelia has a complete emotional come-apart inside the Guggenheim.

Hamlet has difficulty making up his mind about what he should do, and we see him give the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy while in the Action section of a Blockbuster video store. Looking depressed, he eventually leaves the store, walking under the "Go Home Happy" sign. Ultimately he decides, "The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King," and he uses his computer to create a film/video titled "The Mouse Trap."

"The Mouse Trap" is eventually shown in the Denmark Screening Room, and Claudius’ reaction to it reveals his guilt in the murder of Old Hamlet. But when Hamlet tries to kill Claudius, he accidentally kills poor Polonius instead. As Hamlet drags Polonius’ body through a corridor, he utters one of my favorite lines of Shakespearean dialogue: "I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room."

Claudius banishes Hamlet to England, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s school chums, with him. While everyone else is sleeping on their trans-Atlantic American Airlines flight, Hamlet takes down from the overhead bin a notebook computer his uncle has sent along with them, boots it up, and opens a document titled "Commission for Hamlet’s Death." After saving a copy of the document on floppy, he modifies the original on the computer’s hard drive, turning it into a commission for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The story goes on from there, and Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, Hamlet’s mother, and Claudius all wind up dead. But the end of the film has an interesting final touch: A television announcer (Robert MacNeil of the old PBS MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour) comes on the air. Inset at the upper left of the TV screen is a photograph of a man with the caption "FORTINBRAS: Denmark’s New King." Then the announcer delivers a few closing words, which I finally figured out are lines spoken by the Player King in Act III, Scene 2 in Shakespeare’s version.

As seems to be the case in most of the recent screen adaptations of Shakespeare, the quality of the acting in Almereyda’s Hamlet is uneven. Ethan Hawke is adequate in the title role: He’s suitably melancholy, but it seems to me the drama would be stronger if his Hamlet would occasionally behave in such a way that I could believe he would have grown up someday. Liev Schreiber as Laertes and Diane Venora as a lusty Gertrude are the two actors who, in my opinion, best capture their characters. Sam Shepard as Old Hamlet’s ghost is very good indeed, and Kyle MacLachlan is fine as the suave Claudius. Bill Murray seems a little ill at ease with the Shakespearean dialogue, yet he manages to make me sympathetic toward his Polonius, a man who really doesn’t deserve the terrible things that happen to him. Julia Stiles has the right look for Ophelia, but I was put off by her continual poutiness, and her rendering of her lines is downright jarring.

What sets Almereyda’s Hamlet apart from other screen adaptations of the classic play is its visual style. The movie masterfully uses unexpected images, jumpcuts, different film stocks, and a varied color palette to complement Shakespeare’s dialogue. A good example of this is where crowds of zombie-like people are shown thronging a Manhattan street as Hamlet says in voice-over, "The time is out of joint. O, cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!"

In its approach to the story of Hamlet as a family tragedy, Almereyda’s version is rather similar to the great 1948 adaptation by Laurence Olivier. But Almereyda’s version is much faster paced and more varied visually than Olivier’s, although the new adaptation doesn’t match the lyricism of the 1948 version. Still, Almereyda has created one of the best screen versions of the Bard’s immortal play so far, and I recommend it highly.

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