There's a lot of intrusively leaden, urban-industrial style and distracting, pop-edited minutia masquerading as cleverness in writer-director Michael Almereyda's modern Manhattan "Hamlet."
Just the inordinate amount of blatant product placement -- apparently a misguided commentary on consumerism -- is by itself enough to obscure Shakespeare's profundity and passion in a virtual haze. Ophelia listens to Moviefone in one scene for absolutely no reason -- she's not even going to the movies -- and the "To be or not to be" soliloquy takes place in the action section of a Blockbuster store, for cryin' out loud. Why the director would do such a thing is so confounding that you'll tune out half the speech trying to figure it out. Certainly that isn't what he had in mind.
But while it's burdened by such shortcomings, this Y2K date-stamped take on the melancholy Dane -- appropriately played by Ethan Hawke as a brooding, film student heir to a business empire called the Denmark Corp. -- is nonetheless a mildly compelling visitation on the Bard's most complicated tragic hero.
For those who don't know the story, "Hamlet" is about a prince (or in this case a trust fund brat) haunted by his murdered father (a grim Sam Shepard) and beset by the knowledge that his mother (Diane Venora) married his power-hungry uncle (Kyle MacLachlan) almost immediately afterwards.
Slowly nudged towards madness by the discovery that his new stepfather is his real father's killer, Hamlet seeks vengeance while driving away those who love him, including the unstable, nee suicidal Ophelia (Julia Stiles), daughter of Pelonious (Bill Murray), a family confidant who sees Hamlet's instability as a threat to them all.
For this update, Almereyda shows great respect for Shakespeare's text, finding creative ways to renovate the story (part of Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" diatribe to Ophelia is left as a harassing message on her answering machine) while retaining the 17th Century dialogue and peppering the picture with nods to the play (Hamlet lives in the Hotel Elsinore).
The resourceful, cutting-edge director earned his indie cred shooting experimental shorts with a Fisher Price Pixelvision camera (the toy used audio tape to recorded grainy black-and-white video), but here his unique style has given way somewhat to MTV imagery, HandyCam cinematography and a high rate of edits per minute that feels both rushed and choppy.
This "Hamlet" -- lets call it "Hamlet 2000" -- lacks scope and consistency, but even at its worst it's always interesting to watch, eventually pulling itself together for an intense and compelling last act, starting with the play's most emotional scene in which Hamlet blows up at his mother in her bed chamber and accidentally kills Pelonius, who was eavesdropping from her closet.
Hawke rises to the challenge of being the first age-appropriate Hamlet in screen history, even if his character seems like a bit of a cliché, a sulking hipster in a hooded sweatshirt and wrap-around shades. But while his modern inflection of voice is nicely balanced to the dialogue and he has a few stunning moments of fervor, his eyes are often strangely dead.
With a few notable exceptions (I'll get to those in a minute), the rest of the cast are likewise uneven. Although she nails Ophelia's breakdown scene (shot in the Guggenheim Museum), Stiles otherwise performs like she's at her first table-reading of the script, emphasizing random syllables with squints, nods and eyebrow dances as if she hasn't a clue what she's saying.
Ironically, other actors -- notably Murray and Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Ophelia's protective brother -- seem over-rehearsed. Although Schreiber makes a beautiful recovery in time to challenge Hamlet to a climactic rooftop duel. (The duel itself isn't very effective since they seem to be only sparring with fencing foils and not really trying to kill each other.)
Keeping their end up are Sam Shepard, perfectly eerie as Hamlet's phantom father, and Diane Venora, an experienced Shakespearean actress (she once played a female Hamlet on stage) who is mesmerizing as the queen.
Also ideally cast are Steve Zahn ("Happy, Texas," "Out of Sight") and stage actor Dechen Thurman (brother of Hawke's wife Uma), who play the Bard's comic relief characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as scruffy bar flies who kiss up to the new king.
Run time: 242 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 25th December 1996
Box Office Worldwide: $20.7M
Distributed by: Sony Pictures Classics
Production compaines: Warner Bros. Pictures, Nelson Entertainment, Carolco Pictures, Icon Productions
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Fresh: 52 Rotten: 3
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Michael Almereyda