Directed by Michael Almereyda
Review by Matt Heffernan
Few films are more difficult, or have more expected of them, than Shakespeare adaptations. Even on the stage, Hamlet is especially difficult, often having only the familiar yet brilliant poetry to bail the production out. Kenneth Branagh made a triumphant adaptation in 1996, updating it to the 19th century, but keeping most of the play intact. Michael Almereyda's 21st century attempt is more like a filming of the Cliff Notes.
I'm sure that most readers should know the story, but just in case you were never exposed to the play, or just can't get through the arcane language, here goes: Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is the sullen prince of Denmark, whose father has recently died, replaced by his uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) on both the throne and in the bed of his mother, Gertrude (Diane Venora). In Almereyda's film, Denmark is supposed to be a corporation (whose business is never actually revealed), and the king is really just the CEO. Young Hamlet is still visited by the ghost of his dead father (Sam Shepard), who reveals that he was poisoned by Claudius. Of course, this makes Hamlet vengeful to the point of insanity.
Basically, this film will still get that general story across. No problem there; it's a great, compelling story, full of intelligent twists and revelations. The problem lies in the lack of texture. Fully played out on stage, Hamlet can be almost five hours long, and Branagh's film was about four. Almereyda has personally cut it down to well under two hours, and uses a large part of that running length for scenes without dialogue -- mostly to allow for his modernizations. Not only is the texture gone, but even some treasured scenes are cut. Some characters, such as Fortinbras (Casey Affleck) and the gravedigger (Jeffrey Wright), are only seen. Well, Wright does get a chance to sing a little of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" as he digs, but his famous repartée with Hamlet and Horatio (Karl Geary) is gone.
Most of the castmembers who still get to speak do a good enough job, even Hawke, who is the youngest Hamlet ever on film (even at 29, yet the character is supposed to be right out of school). Bill Murray brings his typical comedic flair to Polonius, and his advisory speech to son Laertes (Liev Schreiber) comes off fresh. The real weak point in the cast is Julia Stiles, who may be fit for mediocre teen fare, but is just not ready to play Ophelia. Even so, her weakness is offset by the fact that the proper emotional level can't be reached within the confines of this film.
The best one can hope for is that the final fight scene between Hamlet and Laertes will be done well, since the filmmaker has the greatest latitude in constructing it. Instead of a rousing swordfight, like both Branagh and Franco Zeffirelli managed in their films, H2K degenerates into gunplay after a lackluster fencing match. Oh well, at least you have the product placements -- this is probably the only chance you'll get to see Hamlet's soliloquy delivered in a Blockbuster Video store.
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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan