Michael Almereyda's Hamlet casts Ethan Hawke as the bummed-out Dane and sets the play in glitzy, present-day Manhattan. Knowing only that, anyone's entitled to the same healthy skepticism that I took into the film when I first saw it at the Sundance Film Festival in January. But be prepared for a surprise. This Hamlet is not at all what you might assume. It is, quite the contrary, something I could not have even begun to anticipate when I walked into the theater: the most intellectually engaging and emotionally powerful film version of the Shakespeare play I've ever seen.
That dual feat, I would submit, is not only an extraordinary achievement, it's also a source of mysteries to rival the play's own. Why is this rendition of an almost too-well-known play so haunting finally? Are its cerebral fascinations and its affective punch intrinsically connected, or merely coincidental? Having seen the film a second time recently--and come away even more enthralled and impressed than I was the first--I have a few answers to suggest below. But the movie, like the play, ultimately will elude the net of anyone's explanations. That's part of its cryptic fascinations, and it's also why I urge you to see, and judge, for yourself.
My hunch is that Almereyda's film will appeal to a lot more people than conservative appraisals of its commercial reach might assume, but it's certainly not for everyone, and strict guardians of the text should prepare to have their pacemakers jolted. Although, apart from a few brief interpolations, Shakespeare's language is used throughout, Almereyda's adaptation takes a free hand in paring away scenes and dialogue to leave a more spare and suggestive scenario; several celebrated passages--Hamlet's instructions to the players, the gravedigger's speech and others--are missing entirely.
The play's initial sighting of the ghost is likewise absent. The movie's action begins, after a brief flurry of prefatory images and dialogue snippets, at a press conference in a midtown office building where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) brandishes a copy of USA Today while consolidating his position as the new CEO of the Denmark Corporation. Also in attendance are Gertrude (Diane Venora), Polonius (Bill Murray), Laertes (Liev Schreiber) and Ophelia (Julia Stiles). Skulking at the event's edges, Hamlet (Hawke), wearing one of those collegiate-chic knitted Andean caps with the earflaps, looks like he's ready to hurl a few paving stones at the WTO.
Instead, he morosely follows his mom and Claudius onto the sidewalk after the press conference ends, demanding attention but soon losing them to the protective enclosure of a limousine. The hero's wounded subjectivity and passive-aggressive M.O. now firmly established, the chase, as it were, begins.
A few years back, Baz Luhrmann's De Caprio-starring Romeo and Juliet showed how to modernize Shakespeare in all the superficial ways: flashy MTV-style camera angles and cutting, groovy costumes posed against a slew of cheekily decontextualized settings and so forth. It wasn't a terrible film, just a terribly obvious (and rather sloppily executed) one. Almereyda's precise, gravely elegant modernism has what Luhrmann's pomo hyperkineticism so glaringly lacked: a sense of anchoring reality, a place for all the confusion and sorrow to spring from and recurrently refer back to.
You can't see a ghost from inside a fog bank or smoke machine, after all. It takes a more concrete vantage point, and that's exactly what Manhattan provides here. The sleek skyscrapers, the flashes of Times Square at night, the manicured offices and Ophelia's funky East Village flat, the thoroughly ordinary hallways and anonymous rooms, the seashell interior sweep of the Guggenheim--these are familiar enough to ground the play's fancies and flights in present-tense terms that can't be mistaken. There's nothing cute about this grounding; it only makes tragedy more immediate, more palpable.
Yet, paradoxically, that very solidity delivers us to a place that is highly unstable and oddly ethereal. Because, in the final analysis, the story only appears to unfold in a rock-solid, enduring metropolis. It actually happens, and will go on happening, in another realm entirely. You may think what you're getting is The Dane in New York, in other words. But the film's real unspoken title has to be Hamlet in the Kingdom of Images.
Indeed, there are images everywhere in Almereyda's field of vision: TV sets, news photos, security monitors, paparazzi, camcorder screens, Pixelvision snippets galore. Hamlet himself is a tyro cineaste who attempts to catch the king's conscience with an only mildly pretentious experimental (cough) short film, rather than a play. What's more, Almereyda makes sure we're given glimpses of or nods to lots of preceding filmic Hamlets, from Olivier's to Aki Kaurismaki's. Yet all of this merely references the deeper issue; the real crux is in the images of the film itself.
Beautifully shot by John De Borman, Hamlet has a grainy, textured, coolly restrained look that, like Godard's films in the era-spanning Sauve qui Peut/la Vie and JLG par JLG, will keep returning the attentive viewer not only to the reality of the setting and the people in front of the camera, but also to the film's own photographic reality. This is what really distinguishes Almereyda's movie. Every previous Hamlet, good, bad or middling, has used film to serve the play; this one uses the play to tell us something about film.
In doing so, it posits an illuminating metaphorical correlation between text and image, Shakespeare/Hamlet's reality and our own. To be a cinephile, after all, is to be as obsessed with ghosts as Hamlet is, and as convinced of their reality, their supramundane truthfulness. But in Shakespeare's play the protagonist's obsession, his conviction, is a matter of crisis, not solid certainty. The world has lost its old moorings when Hamlet leaps on its merry-go-round, and in never being absolutely sure of the ghost's (his ghost's or anyone's) reality, he's never truly sure of his own.
So it is with film. There's not only an inherent uncertainty, unbelievability, to its images, but it is, now, additionally bedeviled by historical crisis: Threatened with extinction by other technologies, it finds even its future existence in question. All of which suggests a reading of Almereyda's Hamlet that doesn't apply to any other: The ghost (played by Sam Shepard, a figure spanning theater and film) stands for cinema itself, which makes of every viewer a Hamlet, video-enveloped, uncertain yet desperate to retain a connection with the flickering, overthrown, accusing paternal medium.
That's a roundabout way of saying that the facile cleverness that might be imputed to Hawke's delivering the "To be or not to be" speech in a Blockbuster Video store is anything but. It's incredibly exact. Just as Shakespeare's Hamlet is proverbially seen as spanning the worlds of medieval certainty and modern doubt, so this Hamlet--like any human alive at this moment--bestrides the epochs of film and video. Where else would you set this scene, except in a place where cinema is being devoured by its progeny? "To be or not to be" is, let's face it, the only real question facing cinema now.
So is that the reason I found the movie more devastating than any previous Hamlet? Yes and no, I would say. Yes, because all the theoretical and subtextual matters just alluded to do infiltrate and color everything about the film, from its muted colors to Carter Burwell's gorgeously elegiac score. No, because there are many other intelligent and keenly imagined aspects of Almereyda's film that contribute to its impact and deserve credit on their own.
The acting especially. Al Pacino's wonderful Looking for Richard made a great case for Americans playing Shakespeare in their native accents, and this Hamlet furthers the cause, showing how plain vernacular rhythms can clear the cobwebs and singsongy dust off words that often suffer more from overfamiliarity than archaism. Stiles and MacLachlan, I think, are amazingly close to perfect in this respect. Schreiber and Murray are a bit more self-conscious in their speech, yet their iconic suitability more than compensates for that.
As for Hawke, I must admit that in the first few scenes I found his slacker fuzziness and low-impact verbal approach oddly out of key with the measured gravity of Almereyda's staging, and with the other actors. Later, I wondered if all this was deliberate, a recognition that Hamlet is indeed unfocused and largely unknown to himself until the story, and the angry image of a father he barely knew, forces self-definition on him. In any case, Hawke's performance won me over as it progressed, to the point where it came to feel seamless with Almereyda's vision of the character.
Hamlet is a play that turns on mismatched excesses of thought and feeling. There are few films nowadays that deploy those same qualities--method and sentiment, in Godard's terms--meaningfully, or juxtapose them so purposefully. Almereyda's movie is the rare work that honors Shakespeare's creation by extending its meaning and its painful beauties. It is not the final word on Hamlet because no rendition can be. But you will have a hard time exhausting its implications or shaking its captivating spell; it is that rich and strange, that full of affective intelligence.
One image that particularly stayed with me afterward was the face of Karl Geary as Horatio, the friend who shows Hamlet his father's ghost and later cradles him as he dies. Though the model of comradely support, Geary's thin, pale, very modern visage appears constantly stricken. No wonder. He has seen a ghost. But his look also captures the film itself: haunted, and haunting.