Literary critics often call Hamlet "the first modern man" because he's preoccupied with the nature of self and the consequences of action. But in a spellbinding new take on Shakespeare's great tragedy by independent filmmaker Michael Almereyda, the melancholy prince also takes on the trappings and attitudes of postmodern man. For one thing, this startlingly youthful Hamlet, portrayed with vigor and passion by the twenty-something matinee idol Ethan Hawke, slouches through the glass and concrete canyons of present-day Manhattan wearing yellow-tinted shades and a floppy knit cap, driven into a bleak funk by the ruthless powermongers grappling for control of shadowy Denmark Corporation. For another, he is constantly bedeviled by images -- haunted views of himself trapped in the memory of his laptop, a pornographic representation of his treacherous mother (Diane Venora) in the scabrous "video/play" with which he catches the conscience of the king, the vision of his murdered father's ghost (Sam Shepard) floating out of a Pepsi machine. Four centuries after Shakespeare created him, Hamlet continues to evolve: He is now, in part, the victim of an irony-infested culture that values masks over actual faces, that exalts artificiality while subverting material truth.
Traditionalists convinced that radicals have no business meddling with the classics probably won't like this Hamlet very much -- no more, in fact, than they liked the notion of Ian McKellen delivering the "winter of our discontent" speech while standing at a urinal in 1995's modern-dress version of Richard III. Not to worry: Hamlet has been filmed more than forty times since movies were invented, and any decent video outlet is bound to carry, at the very least, the sublime versions wrought by Laurence Olivier (1948), Nicol Williamson (1969) and Kenneth Branagh (1996).
For the adventurous -- and for youth audiences less conversant with Hamlet than with Hawke -- Almereyda's interpretation will likely work just fine, thank you. And add something valuable to the canon. The budget is low, which doesn't hurt a thing. And the text has been cut, but it's an artful edit. Shakespeare's essence remains, both in the peerless beauty of the poetry and the perfect construction of the play. As for the director's vision of New York in the year 2000 -- a threatening metropolis of sleek surfaces and hidden deceptions -- that comes off chillingly well, too. Meanwhile, minor spectacles like the distraught prince washing slain Polonius's bloody clothes at a laundromat, or musing "To Be or Not to Be" in the "Action" aisle at Blockbuster, transcend gimmickry: They contribute substantially to a convincing portrayal of Hamlet as a terminally depressed young brooder who could probably do with a regimen of Prozac as much as a poison-tipped foil with which to satisfy his complicated blood-lust.
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Hawke and Almereyda don't pile on the contemporary references just for show. For my money, they make good sense in the context of a great play with the astonishing capacity to take on almost any tone or weather. Here, Julia Stiles's pale Ophelia is a disturbed photographer in shabby running shoes living in a scummy downtown loft. Appropriately, her harrowing "mad scene" now unspools in the dizzying upper swoops of the Guggenheim Museum. Kyle McLachlan's scheming Claudius, the new king and CEO of Denmark Corporation, is the very picture of big-business savagery -- impeccably tailored in dark pinstripes, his repertoire of self-serving gestures as smooth and deceitful as his hundred-dollar haircut. Bill Murray (miscast, physically and stylistically) plays Polonius as an ambitious functionary swirling in the wake of his corporate bosses. Liev Schreiber's furiously focused Laertes looks like he just got off work at Smith-Barney. Even more delicious, the prince's ill-fated keepers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman), are now a pair of unkempt slackers who make the mistake of snoozing on the jet to Europe.
"My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth," our tragically hip hero vows, sealing his fate in a crucible of vengeance. Perhaps director Almereyda's thoughts are also a little bloody -- inasmuch as he's taken great liberties with Hamlet in the hope of reigniting it. One cunning detail (an inside joke if there ever was one) seems to clarify his intentions -- at least to the literati in the house. In the book-strewn apartment of Hamlet's pal Horatio (Karl Geary) we can't help noticing, prominently displayed, two volumes of Vladimir Mayakovsky poems. It was the fiery Mayakovsky, you may remember, who, with his coarse language and insistent hyperbole, almost singlehandedly blew away the sweet poetry of the Russian symbolists. This is not to say that Almereyda, a devoted downtown type who once made movies with a Fisher-Price kiddie camera, means to trash the Bard of Avon. More likely, he's taking aim at the current moviemaking establishment which, in the contrarian view, finds refuge in safety and scorns all daring. For the most part, this audacious new Hamlet hits that target dead-center.