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'Hamlet': A Melancholy Dude

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 19, 2000


    'Hamlet' Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles as Hamlet and Ophelia. (Miramax)
Michael Almereyda's reduction of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to an electronic age film noir seems to upend the play's priorities. The movie is much more about a society enmeshed in its own modern culture than it is, you know, that story about the Prince of Denmark.

For one thing, Denmark is the name of a company. In Almereyda's film, set in New York City in the year 2000, the president of the Denmark Corporation (Sam Shepard) is dead, and his son Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) suspects foul play on the part of his uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), who has taken over the company and rapidly married Ham let's mother (Diane Venora).

But although "Hamlet"-the-movie grooves faithfully to its own rules and rhythms (at one point, Jeffrey Wright as the gravedigger sings "All Along the Watchtower"), it never breaks out of its postmodern conceits.

It's a darkly interesting distraction but not much more. After sitting through a contemporary world full of laptops, limousines, surveillance cameras and Palm Pilots, I felt like busting loose – if only to read the actual play, in which interpretations are, once again, infinite and up for grabs. The play, as I mentioned, is also about that heroic Prince of Denmark, as opposed to a mumbling wimp with too much video time on his hands.

Hamlet himself is subsumed by this modern setting. Our central thinker spends most of his time hidden in a woolen sherpa's cap and mumbling soliloquies into a video camera – which becomes an electronic diary for his thoughts.

Video – and, by extension, modernity – is everywhere. And writer-director Almereyda – a New York-based experimentalist who made the intriguing vampire film "Nadja" – bends over backward to make this point. Hamlet's father's ghost is first caught on surveillance camera videotape. Ophelia betrays Hamlet by wearing a wire. And instead of performing "The Mousetrap," the play with which Hamlet embarrasses Claudius and Gertrude, the heir apparent of the Denmark Corporation presents the scheming couple with "The Mousetrap – a film/video by Hamlet."

Beyond the anachronistic trappings, there is still the actual entertainment to consider. Unfortunately, "Hamlet" doesn't seem designed to thrill the audience with its unfolding story; actors come, speak their pieces, perform their plot function and move on. Even Liev Schreiber, an able performer who recently played Hamlet on the New York stage, seems lost and vacant as Laertes.

We semiconsciously dare Bill Murray to break free of his Polonious role and go into that "Bill Murray" act. He seems to flirt with this idea – the man is incapable of concealing his amusing side – but he ultimately reins himself in. We also feel the same thing for Steve Zahn, a hilarious comedian, whose rave-clubbing dudespeak as Rosencrantz almost makes us wish for a different movie, so he could rev his funny motors full throttle. But why are we hoping for these two to get funnier? We're seeking relief.

As if trying to provide that relief – that sense of big movie entertainment – Almereyda gives us a finale that borrows equally from "The King of New York" and "The Duellists," but surprisingly without either film's power. The proof of a good "Hamlet" is right at the end, when the Prince's great friend Horatio says, "There cracks a noble heart." When this moment comes, I'll venture, there isn't a wet eye in the house.

HAMLET (R, 113 minutes) – Contains murder most foul and sexual situations.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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