The wittiest scene in Michael Almereyda's new modern-dress version of Hamlet finds the benighted prince, played by Ethan Hawke, glowering up the Action aisle at Blockbuster Video, reciting the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Hawke--features inert and chin photogenically stubbled--flatly delivers Shakespeare's most famous lines, while in the background The Crow plays in a loop. The juxtaposition might have come off as a stab at Alanis-grade irony, or worse, a play for good shelf placement when the film hits video. Yet Almereyda has something nobler in mind; his Hamlet is not the vortex of woe familiar from countless screen and stage adaptations, but a bratty, disaffected filmmaker. Naturally, then, it would be a trip to the video store that would precipitate the prince's existential paralysis: Why take up arms against a sea of troubles when one can just rent a bloody revenge fantasy and go home happy?
Almereyda, heretofore known as a director of esoteric indie films (Nadja, Twister), sets his Hamlet against a backdrop of corporate monoculture. (Fun Fact: the idea is filched from an obscure Finnish film called Hamlet Goes Business; but let's not even get into that.) The atmosphere, captured in a druggy opening pan through Times Square, is one of gleaming lacquered surfaces: The offices and apartments of "Denmark Corp." appear to have been feng shui-ed to within an inch of oblivion. Its denizens are no less polished. When Kyle MacLachlan, playing a media-mogul incarnation of Claudius, first appears, he looks as though he's just fallen out of a Brooks Brothers catalog. As we all know, however, something is rotten beneath the veneer of affluence and power. And, like any indignant young auteur, Hamlet is there to document it with his digital camera, gloomily filming from the corner as Claudius ascends to the CEO's throne at a press conference with sometime sister Gertrude (Diane Venora).
This Hamlet flows with the pulse of modern technology. When Hamlet père (played by Sam Shepard) first appears, he is seen on a surveillance camera materializing out of a Pepsi vending machine ("Choice of a New Generation," indeed). Later Claudius confers with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern via conference call. In Almereyda's coup de cinema, Hamlet screens a short film-within-the-film, a pastiche of Fifties educational footage and impressionist imagery, to catch the conscience of the king. Far from distracting, the clever deployment of these gimmicks generates a smooth hyperrealism that continually underlines the rank artifice of Denmark Corp. Like Shakespeare's psychological labyrinth Elsinore, this corporate warren is an elaborate illusion--a stage upon which the rituals of power are played out. If, as Harold Bloom asserted, Shakespeare's Hamlet is a Pirandelloesque character--a reticent player in a drama unworthy of his expansive genius--Almereyda's prince is more like a director who has lost control of his script--a personification of the artist working within the incestuous court of Hollywood.
Ethan Hawke, slacker nonpareil, is no great Dane, by the way. He certainly broods intensely--a talent exhaustively documented throughout his career--but his Hamlet lacks the antic disposition of literature's most self-aware wit. Part of the blame lies with Almereyda's screenplay, which, out of necessity, cuts some of the play's best comic asides--especially disconcerting is the absence of the Gravedigger, profane foil of the self-serious philosopher. Yet Hawke does have a certain scruffy charm; with knit skater's cap pulled over his brow, and dark shades, he oozes callow charisma. And, unlike many recent high-profile Hamlets--Kenneth Branagh, Mel Gibson, Ralph Fiennes--he looks the part of Shakespeare's navel-gazing malcontent. Hawke may be giving us Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark, but his blankness fits the ethos of Almereyda's film: In a world that is all cinematic illusion, even a consciousness as deep as Hamlet's is necessarily reduced to a high-gloss façade.
Would that Julia Stiles, as a mostly decorative Ophelia, had exercised the same restraint ("Get thee to an acting coach," might be a more appropriate excoriation for this teen-flick ingénue). Emoting like mad, Stiles leaves herself no room to maneuver when Ophelia finally descends into real madness--a shrill freak-out that is nevertheless cleverly staged at a Guggenheim opening. Casting Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, by contrast, is a minor stroke of genius. This Everyman's essential vacuity, exploited so superbly by David Lynch, remakes the lusty, amoral King of Denmark as a modern archetype: the ambitious, none-too-bright executive, valued primarily for his lack of personality. As Polonius, Bill Murray, too, adds a surprisingly humanizing touch. Tying Ophelia's sneakers and lavishing advice on Laertes (a wooden Liev Schreiber), Murray turns Shakespeare's repellent hypocrite into a sympathetic fool. His sudden--and exceedingly bloody--end is perhaps the single affecting moment in Almereyda's conceptually exquisite, strangely antiseptic movie.
One of the oft-observed curiosities of Hamlet is that it seems to exist outside of time or place: The play is a hall of mirrors, magnifying and distorting its secrets ad infinitum. Perhaps unavoidably, then, Almereyda's denouement, played out on a rooftop below the glittering false firmament of Manhattan, leaves us with a lingering sense of absence. Even with the camera turned inward, the mysteries of Hamlet--and Hamlet--remain impenetrable. The rest is static.
Hamlet starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.
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