Hamlet (United States, 2000)
For those who can't wait until June (and the arrival of Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost) for their semi-regular cinematic Shakespeare fix, there's Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. Imagine the line "To be or not to be" delivered in the aisles of a Blockbuster Video store (What product placement genius!). Or "The play's the thing" referring to a movie, not a live production. Or the lead character telling Ophelia to "Get thee to a nunnery" via a phone answering machine. All of these things, and more, happen in Almereyda's re-interpretation of the classic production. However, while the director has succeeded in creating a visually interesting film, he has also lost the play's soul, and the number of cuts employed render the final product virtually incoherent.
Those who are familiar with "Hamlet" will have no problem following this version. However, anyone drawn to the story by the promise of a young, happening cast will find themselves lost early with little hope of recovering as the proceedings continue. Almereyda pares the content down to a bare minimum. In its entirety, without intermissions, "Hamlet" generally takes between 3:50 and 4:15 to perform (depending on the production). This movie clocks in at a relatively skinny 1:53. Obviously, something is missing.
Almereyda's style is low-key, and this approach saps the play of its energy. In contrast to Kenneth Branagh's glorious, full-length Hamlet, which contained moments to cause nape hairs to stand on end, this interpretation comes across as lifeless and plodding. Branagh's version may have lasted a full four hours, but Almereyda's seems to be the longer of the two adaptations.
To tell his Hamlet, Almereyda retains Shakespeare's dialogue (except for the inclusion of the "Welcome to MovieFone!" spiel, which I'm pretty sure wasn't in the original). Most of the best-known lines are there; alas, poor Yorik doesn't get his moment in the spotlight. The setting has been shifted to New York City in 2000. "Denmark" is the name of a corporation, not a country, and Claudius is the CEO. Computers and video cameras are commonly employed. In fact, when the ghost of Old Hamlet first appears, he is seen on a security monitor. And the final duel takes place with guns as well as swords.
This approach will immediately draw comparisons to the Ian McKellan/Richard Loncraine version of Richard III, Baz Luhrman's Romeo + Juliet, and Julie Taymor's Titus, but there is a key difference. Those films set the play in surrealistic, dream worlds, while Almereyda's Hamlet tries to place events in a modern-day pseudo-reality. For the most part, it doesn't work. The old style English loses its impact when delivered in Blockbuster aisles and on New York City streets. The whole thing is too jarring.
For the most part, the cast is disappointing, as well. Ethan Hawke essays a bland, uninvolving prince. Julia Stiles is flat as Ophelia. Bill Murray's Polonious is stiff and unyielding. And neither Diane Venora nor Kyle MacLachlan, as Gertrude and Claudius, generates much interest. In fact, the only actors to deliver compelling performances are Liev Schreiber (as Laertes) and Sam Shepard (as Old Hamlet).
Although it's virtually impossible to make a bad movie based on a play as strong as "Hamlet", Almereyda almost succeeds. This interpretation has a few strengths, but, on par, the weaknesses outweigh those. Anyone with a real interest in seeing a filmed version of the play can go to their video store and rent Branagh's version - nothing before or since has topped it, especially not this plodding, trendy adaptation.
Hamlet (United States, 2000)
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Sam Shepard, Diane Venora, Bill Murray, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Karl Geary
Screenplay: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Cinematography: John de Borman
Music: Carter Burwell
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films