TV or Not TV: Hamlet, Video Guy

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2000

In "Hamlet," the young director Michael Almereyda turns the classic play into pure Shakespearean rap--so hip, so hop, so very, very now, so very little then. It's not a be-or-not-be thing: It's a hey-dude thing.

The gimmick is precious but it works out nicely: to move the melancholy Dane's agony to New York in the oughts amid hip-hop culture, corporate politics, video cams, faxes, stretch limos, fine wines, cool architecture and really nice suits. Elsinore the castle has become Elsinore the five-star hotel; Denmark the country has become Denmark Inc.; its late king was really its CEO and there is indeed a hostile takeover upcoming from Fortinbras--it says so on the front page of USA Today.

But things remain the same dramatically. The late CEO's brother, Claudius, has just married his widow, Gertrude. And his son, Hamlet--though a scruffy loner with a wisp of oh-so-happening goatee and one of those artsy-craftsy Tibetan knit caps so favored by the black-dressed boys of SoHo these days--still has an attitude problem.

Thank God the bright young director Almereyda has had the sense to leave the language alone (if necessarily truncated to get a four-hour play into a two-hour movie). It plays neatly off the hard, cold, jazzy exteriors of the milieu.

Great cast: Ethan Hawke--scrawny, poetic, haunted and bitter--makes a superb Hamlet as guerrilla video maker (the "play within the play" is, brilliantly, a video of his). There's Bill Murray as Polonius--fit to swell a scene or two and advance the story with his death in Gertrude's closet. Gertrude is played by Diane Venora in a real turn--sexy, smart, unstable, weirdly evasive. Almereyda has seriously cranked up the sexual wattage: this Gertrude is a dish, voluptuous and wanting. Is Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) better off in bed than her late husband (played in ghostly form by Sam Shepard)? Her sexual avarice as he speaks on the phone seems to suggest that he is. There's a lot of unseemly pawing between her and Claudius, as there is a concomitant miswired envy in Hamlet himself. And yet another bold twist: Gertrude, in this version, has figured out the wine is poisoned and takes it to save Hamlet, thereby choosing between the man who would be king and the man who is the son.

There's some genius in brothering up Shepard and MacLachlan: They look a lot like siblings--thin, angular men with finely chiseled features and dark, smart eyes. (Hawke seems to come from the same gene pool.) Poor, mad Ophelia? Julia Stiles, in her second Shakespearean rag. (Her "Ten Things I Hate About You" was a version of "The Taming of the Shrew.") Stiles plays the destabilizing young woman gracefully, but instead of strewing flower petals about the pond before her clothes fill with water and pull her under, she strews Polaroids. Her brother and Hamlet's antagonist, Laertes, is played by Liev Schreiber in a high fit of angry passion, easily the most energy he's shown in his career.

Some of the modernizations streamline the play in effective ways. For example, the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, implicit but undramatized by Shakespeare because no one had bothered to invent the flashback, can be recalled on Hamlet's hand-held video screen without altering the text. We now see their love and know what Hamlet surrenders when he spurns her. The soliloquies make some sense for Hamlet the videophile, given to keeping a visual diary rather than addressing the audience, though in fact the famous "to be/not to be" dichotomy of indecision plays ironically in an aisle of Blockbuster "action" rentals. Then there's the issue of faxes. Too bad Shakespeare never thought of them! For now, instead of all those irritating messengers interrupting with letters from England (to report on the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, say), a little bing and a purr from the fax machine, and out comes the news.

Purists may object that the film hums, buzzes and clicks so energetically. There is so much media within it (information everywhere) that in some sense it is no longer Shakespeare. That is certainly true, at least by classical standards. But what really works isn't the gimmickry, it's the drama itself. These are great, primal stories that pull you in, make you care and put you on the edge of madness and violence. In the end, the play's still the thing.

Hamlet (113 minutes, at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for violence and sexual innuendo.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company