Reviewed by: Christopher Heyn
|Featuring||Ethan Hawke, Liev Schreiber, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Diane Venora|
|Producer||Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby|
Sir Lawrence Olivier must be laughing in his grave.
Ever since his masterful adaptation of “Hamlet” in 1948 (which won him Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Actor), numerous filmmakers have tried to reach the heights of Olivier’s classic film version. In the last ten years alone, we’ve had three more versions of Shakespeare’s most famous play, including this one. Only 1990’s superb “Hamlet”, directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starring Mel Gibson, came close to what Olivier accomplished. In 1996, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a lavish four-hour version of “Hamlet” in an attempt to present the play in its entirety. Unfortunately, the result was uneven, overlong, filled with embarrassingly bad special effects sequences, and capped off by a pretentious lead performance by Branagh. Now, in 2000, we have a new version, set in modern day New York. This one is even worse.
Ethan Hawke is horribly miscast as Hamlet, spending half the time moping around with an ugly knit cap on his head, staring at film footage of himself on a portable video screen. (The “Denmark” in this version is now a corporation that produces films.) If only someone like Edward Norton was cast in the lead role, this film could have been watchable.
Kyle MacLachlan portrays the evil Claudius, and although he looks the part of a sleazy corporate raider, MacLachlan once again proves he is incapable of giving a decent performance in a film not directed by David Lynch. The only acting highlights in the film come from the Polonius-Laertes father/son duo, played by Bill Murray and Liev Schreiber, respectively. Murray’s performance is witty, sharp and quite a revelation. Who would have expected that Murray could not only do Shakespeare, but steal the movie from his co-stars? Meanwhile, Schreiber brings much-needed gravity to the film’s proceedings. It’s clear he’s done Shakespeare before.
Interestingly enough, the uneven acting isn’t what kills this new version of Hamlet. The film fails because of how the play has been edited. The roles of Gertrude and Ophelia are cut down to almost nothing, so when both of their death scenes arrive, they pass with barely a ripple of emotional impact. One of the most popular scenes, the gravedigger scene, has been inexplicably removed. Thankfully, the famous “to be or not to be” speech remains, even if it is played in the aisle of a Blockbuster video store.
Not everything in this version of “Hamlet” is a waste, however. Director Michael Almereyda employs an inventive use of fax machines and cell phones to carry some of the dialogue, and his choice of New York locations is never boring—his use of the Guggenheim Museum as the site of Ophelia’s breakdown is an inspired choice. And Carter Burwell’s music works beautifully when he isn’t being overwrought, which is about half the time.
Because “Hamlet” is a Shakespeare play featuring revenge as one of its themes, this film version features lots of gunplay and copious amounts of blood in several scenes, with Polonius’ death being especially grisly. It’s sad, really. This version of “Hamlet” could have been something captivating, but instead, director Almereyda seemed more interested in filling the screen with creative visuals and less so with telling a coherent story. Yes, something rotten is in Denmark, but it’s not only Hamlet that realizes it. So does the audience.