The New York Times FILM REVIEW May 12, 2000

`Hamlet': A Simpler Melancholy in a Different Denmark

By ELVIS MITCHELL

It is curious; one never thinks of attaching 'Hamlet' to any special locale," the critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the director Michael Almereyda has brilliantly seized upon that by rooting his voluptuous and rewarding new adaptation of the play in today's Manhattan. The city's contradictions of beauty and squalor give the movie a sense of place -- it makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you'll ever see in a film -- and New York becomes a complex character in this vital and sharply intelligent film.

Mr. Almereyda contours the material to his own needs, even though he was inspired by the 1987 "Hamlet Goes Business," a deadpan update by the renegade Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. This "Hamlet" is also set in the corporate world, where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has risen to the top of the Denmark Corporation.

But where Mr. Kaurismaki presented his take as a slapstick tragedy that bordered on sadism, Mr. Almereyda layers his cool-to-the-touch version with a luxuriant paranoia compounded by the constant deployment of video cameras and listening devices.

Often shaded in lush, soothing hues of blue, "Hamlet" exudes an intoxicating masochism in which half the cast is battling despondency and the other half has the glint of imminent insanity. As insightfully played by Diane Venora, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, is in danger of breaking down into a fine, distraught powder from the outset. In this version, the melancholy of Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) over the death of his father is almost a state of grace; it gives him a sense of purpose that the other characters lack.

Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare, starting with an understanding of the emotional pull of the material that corresponds with its new period and setting. Hamlet's soliloquies are now interior monologues except for the "To be or not to be" speech, which he delivers in a Blockbuster video store, using the blue in the company logo and the word "Action" emblazoned on the shelves to fit in with the mood and color of the rest of the picture.

The director's rigorous trimming has a boldness and vivacity that makes this version exhilarating while leaving Shakespeare's language and intent intact. The use of colors -- its palette is red, green and the aforementioned blue -- is a visual manifestation of the streamlining. This movie will send shivers of happiness through audiences because it's one of the few American productions of "Hamlet" constructed around the rhythms of the actors, giving each scene a different pulse.

Mr. Almereyda plays to his performers' strengths, and it's awe inspiring. The truly revelatory performance comes from the ravaged dignity that Bill Murray lends Polonius, a weary, middle-aged man whose every utterance sounds like a homily he should believe in and perhaps did many years ago. Mr. Murray takes the bemused hollowness he first discovered in sketch comedy and gives it a worn, saddened undercurrent; it's what those bullying cynics he plays in comedies would be like in real life after about 20 years. The speech Polonius gives to his son, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), has a truth that "Death of a Salesman" can only aspire to and certifies Mr. Murray -- who's been giving fully shaped performances in bad or little-seen movies for years -- as one of the finest actors currently working. "Madam, I use no art at all," he says at one point, and it's true; he uses apparent artlessness to achieve art.

It's not just Mr. Murray and Ms. Venora who are worth watching. Mr. MacLachlan's Claudius has a hail-fellow-well-met shallowness, a blandness tinged with creeping ambition. Mr. Schreiber is all lovely Old World elegance; he uses his resonant, trained voice to find the injured quality of lines like "You wound me, sir," and offers a classical turn in the midst of the modernity. Steve Zahn plays Rosencrantz as slacker-weasel with a blurry twang that is just what's called for here. And Karl Geary is a steadfast, affecting Horatio.

Conceptually, "Hamlet" has all the goods and then some. Oddly enough, the title character is a little lacking in complication. Mr. Hawke's laudable commitment to the project was obviously responsible for getting it made, and his feline transparency would appear to be right for a Hamlet wrestling with the urge to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death.

But this Hamlet, wearing knit caps that make him look like a lost member of the Spin Doctors, is mired in an arrested adolescence that infantilizes him. For this conception to be fully realized, Hamlet's interior monologues shouldn't so fully mirror what's going on with him outwardly; a contrast would have provided some tension. Mr. Hawke's moping slows things down too much, and a clip from a James Dean movie playing behind him emphasizes the self-pitying aspect.

Julia Stiles plays Ophelia, and this may be the first time in her brief film career that this wildly talented young actress has seemed immature. "Hamlet" exploits her youth effectively: Polonius laces up her sneakers as he addresses her. But Ms. Stiles seems too much a child and often can't get her footing as the production sprints past her. Her natural onscreen empathy does allow for several moments that get under the skin: Ophelia plunges into an azure pool, imagining her death; she's often photographed at some of the most beautiful fountains and water spouts in New York. And when distraught, she dissolves into sobs, flinging Polaroids as if they were flower petals; it's heart-rending. The scenes she has with Mr. Hawke with a conventional and definable give-and-take also serve her well.

Little of Mr. Almereyda's previous films ("Another Girl, Another Planet," "Nadja"), which are often dizzy with promise, suggested that he had the technique and imagination he brings to bear here. It's incredibly satisfying to see a director grow in the ways that he has. The "Romeo and Juliet" director Baz Luhrmann fired his camera out of the barrel of a gun, and the overdirected velocity was a moviemaker's equivalent of a collection of nervous tics; Mr. Almereyda's audacity comes in problem solving, one of the true functions of a director.

Whereas Mr. Luhrmann's dazzle is all from the outside, Mr. Almereyda goes to the heart of things and has given Shakespeare a distinctively American perspective. "Hamlet" is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.

To develop the distrust and miscommunication -- a contemporary spin on the Shakespearean theme of people being out of touch with their natural environments -- bits of dialogue are filtered through other sources, like overheard phone conversations. Mr. Almereyda's use of technology is fascinating and well thought out; Hamlet's dead father (Sam Shepard), for example, is first glimpsed on video screens. Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" speech to Ophelia becomes an unrelenting tantrum; it follows her home and continues to attack her when she turns on her answering machine.

You'll also catch snatches of material out of the corner of your eye, like Jeffrey Wright's cameo as the Gravedigger singing "All Along the Watchtower," a piece of pop music that was made for Shakespeare: "There must be some kind of way out of here, said the Joker to the Thief."

So much of the play is pleasurably recast -- like a snapshot of Fortinbras on a television screen as the Player King, now a news anchor, wraps things up -- that Mr. Almereyda has created a hunger for more. In so many ways, "Hamlet" is a palpable hit, or it should be.

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The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 19, 2000

'Hamlet' wired into Manhattan

By Steven Rea INQUIRER MOVIE CRITIC

In Michael Almereyda's bracing, steel-blue, 21st-century Hamlet, the soul-wracked prince - son of the fresh-killed CEO of the Denmark Corporation, whose widow (Hamlet's mother) has married the man suspected of the murder - delivers Shakespeare's famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy while wandering the aisles of a Blockbuster store

It's an inspired moment as Ethan Hawke, playing the slackeresque scion with a knit cap and knitted brow, stands before a wall of uniform video boxes in the "Action" section, fraught with indecision, tortured by ambivalence. Almereyda's smart, streamlined adaptation is full of such neat little ironies.

Set in the cold, corporate universe of modern-day New York (Elsinore is now the name of a sky-high, five-star hotel), this Hamlet is awhirl with noise - aural and visual. Security cameras monitor comings and goings; everybody's packing Discmans and digital video cams; laptops, cell phones and answering machines click and collide, echoing and embellishing Shakespeare's stormy verse. But unlike the enjoyably souped-up, MTV-ish whoosh that was Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet, Almereyda's film uses these techno trappings not as flash gimmickry but as a surround-sound cacophony that reflects Hamlet's own confused state. There is no silence, no sanctuary, in the outside world, and no peace of mind to be had in the prince's inner world, either.

Hawke, who wraps his tongue around the Bard's iambs with ease (indeed, there isn't an actor in this inventively cast affair who appears to be "reciting" the text in that what-am-I-doing-here?, actor-out-of-his-depth way), makes a good protagonist for Almereyda's interpretation: young, bemused, melancholy, aloof. He's difficult to read - is this a man out for vengeance, or out to lunch?

Hamlet is full of pleasing moments of recognition, and surprise. Bill Murray, continuing a career of oddball brilliance (his turn in 1998's Rushmore is unforgettable), plays Polonius - crafty courtier in a sharp suit, father to the moony Ophelia - with shambling nonchalance. When Murray, straight-faced, begins his sagacious lecture about character ("Neither a borrower nor a lender be. . . . This above all: to thine own self be true . . ."), the match of man and word is both strange and strangely perfect.

Diane Venora as Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, is aptly elusive; Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, stepfather and usurper to the throne, is suitably blank; Julia Stiles brings a punky grace to the fated Ophelia; and Liev Schreiber is intensely filial as Laertes, her kin.

And Sam Shepard, hissing like a snake, gives the angry admonitions of the ghost of Hamlet's father particular venom. It's easily one of the playwright and occasional actor's most vivid screen performances.

With a jagged, buzzing soundtrack featuring Primal Scream, Morcheeba (rapping "Papa was a rolling stone" - more irony!) and Niels Wilhelm Gade, along with the stately embellishments of composer Carter Burwell, Hamlet's rhythms conflate the poetry of the play with the sonic debris of an e-powered universe, a nightlife illumined by the dazzle of Times Square and the dense-packed hum of sleek clubs and bars.

Almereyda has brought Shakespeare right up to the moment, giving it a new, hip spin, but keeping fast hold to the wisdom of the words.

***1/2

Steven Rea's e-mail address is srea@phillynews.com

(c) 2000 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.

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"Hamlet"

There's something rotten in Denmark, but not in this darkly glittering update of Shakespeare's great tragedy.

BY STEPHANIE ZACHAREK

There's a scene in "Back to School" where Rodney Dangerfield, as a fat old rich guy returning to college, struts into the campus bookstore and announces, "Shakespeare for everyone!"

It's a nice sentiment. But despite Shakespeare's renewed popularity -- the runaway success of "Shakespeare in Love," for example -- there's still a prevailing sentiment that you need all kinds of special keys to unlock his meaning. What's often amazed me is how frequently Shakespeare is held away from everyone. It's all well and good for academics to tell everyday people -- in other words, those of us who aren't scholars -- that Shakespeare's plays are about the richness of the language, first and foremost. The language is wonderful once you understand it. But there's something tyrannical about the purist view that the language of Shakespeare is the almighty key, because there are times when it can be dauntingly difficult. You could easily find a much more proficient Juliet than Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet." But you'd be hard pressed to find one who's as touching.

Watching Luhrmann's passionate but flawed movie, it struck me for the first time that the best way to keep Shakespeare alive, and for everyone, isn't necessarily through the most careful and proper line readings: that visuals and imagination and gut feeling all have to count for something too, all without going for modernization simply for the sake of novelty.

Michael Almereyda's somber, gorgeous, darkly glittering "Hamlet," set in New York in the early days of the 21st century, is so perfectly modern, and yet so mindful of the tradition of the play, that it seems to exist in two worlds at once. There's no sense that the narrative texture had to be jazzed up in order to make the material seem relevant to a modern audience. If anything, Almereyda's "Hamlet" is a meditation on the timelessness of the material. It's deeply inventive within the framework of the story, and it's funny in unexpected places. Every actor involved rises to the challenge of the language (Almereyda has streamlined the play for the screen but hasn't updated the text), although not every performer comes at it in an expected, or officially sanctioned, way.

But oddly enough it's the picture's visuals -- its mournful, glassy Manhattan high-rises; its limos and Town Cars with their mirrorlike flanks -- that make it feel most like "Hamlet." The picture carries a slight pall over it; the overarching sense that something is terribly wrong hovers in the air like a swarm of muted surveillance helicopters. It's as much a tone poem in honor of "Hamlet" as it is a raw interpretation of it, but it shines as both tribute and treatment.

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Why has it taken so long for movies to come around to addressing Shakespeare in such bold visual terms? Even a spectacle as lush as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 "Hamlet" -- a picture that brought me closer to this dense, staggeringly beautiful play than I'd ever felt before -- is still more like a filmed stage play than a visual reimagining of the material, as Almereyda's "Hamlet" is. Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" was gorgeous, touching and messy: The director was perfectly in control of the picture's images, but less sure-footed in guiding its pacing and narrative drive.

But Almereyda's "Hamlet" could be considered a foot soldier of a new era, heralding a time when even Shakespeare purists accept that visuals can be enlisted in the service of the language, and not at the expense of it. Even New Yorker film critic David Denby, who claimed with characteristic fustiness that he loathes "anyone mucking about with the classics," has taken to this "Hamlet." Perhaps that's because there's no self-conscious artiness in Almereyda's approach, or in the approach of his actors. The picture was shot on a tight production schedule in super 16 millimeter. Every camera angle (the movie was beautifully shot by John de Borman), as well as every line of dialogue, exists only to move the action along and build the picture's dusky mood layer by layer, like storm-cloud stripes of agate.

The picture opens with an announcement that the CEO of the Denmark Corporation is dead. Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), a suspect in his death, has taken over as head of the conglomerate and has also married the CEO's widow Gertrude (Diane Venora), much to the dismay of her son Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a sullen fellow who, because of his privileged upbringing, doesn't really have to do much except sulk around Manhattan making video art. His girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles), who comes from a similarly privileged background, is a photographer; she's guarded by her overly protective father Polonius (Bill Murray) and brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber).

Young Hamlet, still smarting from the death of his father and unable to fathom why his mother would remarry so soon, plays out his personal misery against a bank of video screens splayed out on his desk. He obsesses over footage of his mother and his late father (Sam Shepard), who were so clearly wrapped deep in love with one another before his father's death. Slouching in front of his monitor, clicking and double-clicking almost voyeuristically on these home movies of his parents' former happiness, he mutters, "She would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown for what it fed on," his disbelief in her inconstancy mounting with every zoom and rewind.

And yet even with its tacit criticism of technology as an excessive and unavoidable part of everyday life, this "Hamlet" embraces modern culture more than vilifies it. Almereyda's Denmark Corporation is a symbol of corruption, but isn't a metaphor for the world at large. This isn't so much a case of an old play being made modern as a classic play standing up staunchly in the face of multimedia saturation. Almereyda's "Hamlet" isn't dismissive of contemporary culture at all -- if anything, it's an avowal of faith in its richness, in its ability to provide a consistently renewable and fresh framework for old stories.

If Almereyda is acutely aware of the sinister quality of fax machines or of the way big business threatens to overwhelm the delicate texture of everyday life, he's also completely unafraid to assert his affection for technology. When Hamlet alters the order for his own death so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played by Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman) will be executed instead, he uses a Powerbook -- and when he flips it on, that trademark chiming sound is like a reassurance of continuity in a frighteningly uncertain world.

This "Hamlet's" effectiveness rests on an astonishing number of pitch-perfect choices, founded in Almereyda's instincts and those of the performers, many of which have the feel of being completely spontaneous. Almereyda's movie feels trim and compact, the story boiled down to its very essence.

And he isn't afraid to lean on the most elemental aspects of the play, particularly the universal appeal of the ghost story that lies at its very center. That's no less than you'd expect from Almereyda, given the sleek gothic poetry of his 1995 feature "Nadja," a luminous fable about contemporary East Village vampire hipsters. The first appearance of Hamlet's ghost -- a gaunt and suitably miserable-looking Shepard in a long overcoat -- practically seems to stop time. He walks forlornly down an empty basement corridor, dissolving just as he passes into a Pepsi machine. But the moment isn't any kind of visual joke: It's more a shivery melding of the earthly and the unearthly, a way of contrasting comfortable and familiar things like soda machines with unsolvable problems, like the unhappiness of restless souls.

And later, when Hamlet's ghost appears to his son outside a glassed-in, high-rise terrace, the second glimpse we get of him is no less affecting. It's little wonder his presence snaps young Hamlet out of his ennui -- but it's just one perfectly natural interaction between two characters, in a movie where an ensemble of actors seem to read one another effortlessly. Almereyda's Hamlet is much younger than he's normally portrayed (and the narrow age difference between him and MacLachlan's Claudius adds yet another layer of complexity to Hamlet's Oedipal problems). Hawke walks the line easily between being an annoying, self-absorbed spud (and what is Hamlet if not self-absorbed?) and a troubled soul whose roiling confusion, if expressed right, can be enough to tear your heart in two.

Hawke plays Hamlet as a spoiled brat just on the cusp of being a serious young man: He struts around disaffectedly in a Peruvian knit cap with earflaps, the kind of doofy-looking headgear that you see on handsome young hipsters in almost any urban center. It's a look that confers a false sense of invisibility and thus invincibility ("I really don't care how foolish this thing makes me look"), and it's part of what makes Hawke's performance so touching.

His soliloquy -- delivered in the "Action" aisle of a Blockbuster Video store -- is affecting precisely because it's so un-Shakespearean. Hawke, with his aw-shucks demeanor, his slightly superior sneer, his wispy facial hair, plays Hamlet as just a guy -- a student on break from school. His everydayness, his clear refusals to try to aspire to some kind of Shakespearean greatness, is exactly what makes him breathe. Hawke certainly isn't the greatest Hamlet of living memory (I suppose most bets would have to go to Olivier), but his performance reinforces Hamlet's place as Shakespeare's greatest character. And in that sense, he more than holds his own in the long line of actors who've played the part.

And the cast around him is nothing short of stellar. Shepard is both a deeply moving and nerve-racking ghost, so mournful as to be unsettling. MacLachlan's Claudius is all the more insidious for being such a clean-scrubbed hail-fellow-well-met. Of all Almereyda's actors, Venora and Schreiber (both of whom have played Hamlet on stage in New York) are the most comfortable with Shakespeare's language. As Gertrude, Venora strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and selfishness. And even though he has only a small amount of screen time, Schreiber's Laertes feels completely and beautifully fleshed out. When he says goodbye to his sister, he secretly draws a little butterfly barrette from her hair, and the tenderness of the gesture is mirrored perfectly in the look on his face: He's beginning to miss her terribly, and forever, well in advance.

Stiles brings a gentle stillness to her Ophelia: When she begins to unravel (along the vertigo-inducing spiral walkway of the Guggenheim museum, no less), her fragility is echoed by a collar of quivering black feathers that frames her face. (The costumes, conceived by Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti, are inspired.) And Murray's Polonius, bumbling and warm, is the picture's glowing emotional center. There's an early moment when, as he's warning Ophelia not to get too entangled with Hamlet, he reaches down and impulsively ties her sneaker -- a reassurance of fatherly protectiveness that's heartbreaking in light of its futility.

"Hamlet" is one of those cases where a group of actors band together (working for scale, it should be noted) to pull off something miraculous. If this "Hamlet" weren't so perfectly conceived visually, it would probably stand solidly on the basis of its acting alone.

As it is, though, Almereyda's seemingly offhanded choices come together to make "Hamlet" feel almost like a feat of alchemy. When Ophelia finally succumbs to insanity ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance"), she tosses a series of Polaroids, instead of flower petals, over her shoulder. After he murders Polonius, Hamlet retreats to a Laundromat, where Claudius corners him: The claustrophobically narrow corridor, lined with spinning portals, is a potent metaphor for the way Hamlet's reality is closing in on him. And the movie's finale -- the duel between Hamlet and Laertes -- takes place on an urban rooftop, a place where penthouse luxury meets unavoidable tragedy. With the lights of the city glittering around them, Hamlet and Laertes play out the only choices they have left. They're as far away from Denmark as you can get, and yet, somehow, they couldn't bring it any closer. Technology may be the thing that shrinks time and space, but it's really art that travels at the speed of light. salon.com | May 12, 2000

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About the writer Stephanie Zacharek is a staff writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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Village Voice

 

VANITY FARE BY J. HOBERMAN

Obsessed with his role-playing, even as he rebels against it, Hamlet may be the most self-conscious poseur in English theater. It's a part ready-made for mannerism, which is perhaps what attracted Ethan Hawke to the material. Consequently, downtown filmmaker Michael Almereyda's slimmed-down, updated version of the Shakespeare tragedy-with Hawke in the title role-is stylish, funny, and smart . . . but only up to a point.

Almereyda's revamped scenario concerns a power struggle within the Denmark Corporation, a vaguely defined multinational whose headquarters appear to be the Hotel Elsinore in Times Square. Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has taken over the company and married his murdered predecessor's wife, Gertrude (Diane Venora). Opposing these evil, parental suits, Hamlet is a blandly obnoxious aspiring digital videomaker who affects throughout a grungy Peruvian wool hat.

You might well wonder if Hawkes's Hamlet is the curtain-raiser for Kelsey Grammer's upcoming Macbeth. (Could it be a harbinger of George Clooney's Lear? Adam Sandler's Richard III?) But the star, who evidently used his bankability to get this 16mm movie made, is not the only behavioral performer here. Hawkes's combination of self-importance and callow cool is complemented by Julia Stiles's Ophelia, a sullen teenager with her own lower Manhattan loft. (Stiles exudes such agonized petulance one suspects Almereyda deliberately kept her waiting an hour before each take.)

Hamlet is predicated on stunt casting-which, though it may not enrich the material, at least provides a subtext. MacLachlan is an actor who never appears less (or more) than fake. Venora herself played Hamlet in a celebrated Joseph Papp production, and her Gertrude has far more physical authority than actual dialogue. Bill Murray's Polonius seems to have taken literally Hamlet's description of his character as "a foolish prating knave." As Laertes, Liev Schreiber-another recent Hamlet-is the most conventionally Shakespearean in his carefully tossed-off line readings. (Schreiber's scenes with Murray and Stiles place him uncomfortably between the facetious and the inept; those with Hawke leave the unmistakable impression of an actor who cannot help but think he should have been cast in the lead.)

Given the free-floating narcissism, Hamlet is appropriately image-haunted. The prince delivers his first soliloquy via Pixelvision on a laptop screen. His father's ghost is initially glimpsed in an elevator monitor. (There's another specter in a fleetingly televised James Dean, surely the Hamlet to which the mumbling Hawke might aspire.) Throughout, Almereyda layers the visual information through a panoply of computer screens, TV sets, bookcases. Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy is staged in the action aisle at Blockbuster Video, and the movie's comic high point is the video Hamlet presents to catch the king's conscience-a found-footage assemblage encompassing everything from Edison's Electrocuting an Elephant to a bit of Lewis Klahr cut-and-paste animation.

Hamlet is not quite camp-although this is a movie where it always seems to be Halloween. Making much of faxes and speaker-phones, the movie has more than a casual resemblance to Aki Kaurismäki's 1987 Hamlet Goes Business. (The rubber duck that Ophelia returns to Hamlet is an homage-in Kaurismäki's supremely sarcastic film, Claudius is attempting to corner the world market in bath toys.) Like the Finnish director's mock grandiloquent noir, Almereyda's Hamlet is at least part thriller, and as diffident as he might seem, the director does imbue the proceedings with a measure of moody urgency.

From the opening low-angle traveling shot through Times Square to Hamlet's hasty trip to JFK in the company of those duplicitous dudes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Steve Zahn and the star's brother-in-law Dechen Thurman), Hamlet is a swiftly paced rhapsodic nocturne. The movie has the benefit of Carter Burwell's lush, brooding score and cinematographer John de Borman's glowing, saturated palette. Almereyda uses midtown Manhattan as evocatively as he did the East Village in Nadja. There's a visual poetry to the looming towers of power and the chrome and glass apartments in the sky.

But the joke only goes so far, and even at a relatively svelte 112 minutes Hamlet comes apart in its final third. Effectively snarky to begin with, reasonably mad throughout the middle scenes, Hawke has nothing left but attitude for the finale, particularly once the supporting cast begins dropping out around him. Can we term this a vanity project? Well before TV commentator Robert MacNeil appears to deliver the suitably glib wrap-up, it's apparent that "the rest is silence."

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Chicago Trib

05/10/2000 Wednesday - Page A 45 This 'Hamlet' Is Movie Most Fine

John Anderson. STAFF WRITER

(3 1/2 stars) HAMLET. (R) Provocative reimagination of Shakespeare's Danish tragedy, transported to a millennial Manhattan of venality and video. With Ethan Hawke, Karl Geary, Julia Stiles, Liev Schreiber, Bill Murray, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Sam Shepard. Screen adaptation by Michael Almereyda.

Directed by Michael Almereyda. 1:52 (adult content). At the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, Broadway at 63rd Street, and the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Manhattan.

'THE KING and CEO of Denmark Corporation is dead," announces Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet," via titles projected through the sunroof of a limousine.

The cashmere-coated Claudius has executed a hostile takeover of the lust-besotted Gertrude. The goateed Hamlet is eyeballing the troubled landscape through the viewfinder of his digital camera. And the fragile Ophelia waits in vain for her moody ersatz Dane, in the public-access spaces of corporate Manhattan.

Any updating, modernizing or, in this case, urban renewal of Shakespeare's greatest play could easily have been undone by its own cleverness. And Almereyda has plenty of cleverness-the ghost of the King, for instance, being spotted on the closed-circuit TV of Denmark Corp., using a terraced apartment for his parapet and disappearing into a Pepsi machine when security finds him out. Or the conscience-catching "Mousetrap" being presented as a piece of video art.

But Almereyda's "Hamlet" doesn't merely put the play on film and in a modern world. It adapts the play for film-and for the modern world. Using a seriously truncated text (as most non- Branagh productions do), it features a performance by Ethan Hawke in the title role that suggests what James Dean or Johnny Depp might have made of it. But that's fine: Hamlet is the most internalized of literary monuments and Hawke's callow-bordering-on- surly Prince is everything a '00-ish Wittenberg grad student should be-a model of self-absorption whose psychological fetal position nearly makes him disappear.

Hawke's attitude also works toward a solution of the Hamlet Conundrum, the lack of a so-called "objective correlative" cited by T.S. Eliot and others, who've found in in the plot a lack of justification for Hamlet's tortured soul, his inability to kill the man who killed his father, married his mother and usurped his throne (or, in this case, the corner office). But Hawke's Hamlet virtually wallows in post-adolescent suffering, flagellates in existential angst; if Almereyda's Hamlet fell down in the woods and there was no one there to hear it, he probably wouldn't make a sound.

Which is less than you can say for the rest of the cast, whom Almereyda (best known for his Pixel-visioned junkie-AIDS vampire comedy "Nadja") has directed toward a rereading of the entire text. Most entertainingly, Bill Murray, as the wise old windbag Polonius ("neither a borrower nor a lender be ... "), finds the humorous possibilities in every other line. Most poignantly, Julia Stiles ("10 Things I Hate About You"), mad scene aside, is a mostly mute Ophelia whose injuries are nonetheless eloquent and whose manipulation and grief are heartbreaking. When Polonius, her father, counsels her about Hamlet's untrue heart, and almost absentmindedly ties her sneaker, it constitutes a moment so gloriously human it's practically, well, Shakespearean.

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HAMLET / *** (R)

May 19, 2000

Hamlet: Ethan Hawke Claudius: Kyle MacLachlan Gertrude: Diane Venora Ghost: Sam Shepard Ophelia: Julia Stiles

Miramax presents a film directed and adapted by Michael Almereyda. Based on the play by William Shakespeare. Running time: 111 minutes. Rated R (for some violence).

I've seen Hamlet as an intellectual, And I've seen Hamlet as an ineffectual, And I've seen Hamlet as a homosexual, And I've seen Hamlet ev'ry way but textual. . .: from "I've Seen Shakespeare," : by Weeden, Finkle & Fay

BY ROGER EBERT

A nd now the melancholy Dane is a Manhattan techno-nerd, closeted with his computers, his video editing gear and his bitter thoughts. His father's company, the Denmark Corp., has made the front page of USA Today after a boardroom takeover by the scheming Claudius. Hamlet's mother has married the usurper. And the ghost of Hamlet's father appears on security cameras and materializes in a form transparent enough for Hamlet to see the Pepsi machine behind him.

Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet," with Ethan Hawke as the prince and Bill Murray as Polonius, is both a distraction and a revelation. Sometimes the modern setting works against the material, sometimes it underlines it, and at all times it proves that "Hamlet" no more belongs in medieval Denmark than anywhere else. However it is staged, wherever it is set, it takes place within Hamlet's mind.

There are few thoughts worth having about life, death and existence that "Hamlet" does not express in the fewest and most memorable words. "To be or not to be" is the central question of human life, and Shakespeare asked it 400 years before the existentialists, and better than the Greeks. If man is the only animal that knows he must die, "Hamlet" is the distillation of that knowledge. This 21st century "Hamlet," with its concealed microphones, answering machines, videotapes and laptops, is as much Shakespeare's as Laurence Olivier's in medieval dress was, or Richard Burton's in basic black, or Kenneth Branagh's in 19th century Blenheim Castle, or Mel Gibson's in a Scottish castle. It is Shakespeare because it respects his language, just as Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" (1996) was not because it did not.

Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet as a restless, bitter neurotic, replaying his memories on video machines and doing dry runs of his big speeches on a PixelVision camera he aims at himself. "To be or not to be" is sketchily seen on Hamlet's own video, and finally reaches its full ironic flower in the "Action" corridor of a Blockbuster store. When Polonius (Murray) asks his daughter Ophelia (Julia Stiles) to sound out Hamlet, he supplies her with a concealed tape recorder--and Hamlet discovers the bug. When Hamlet denounces Ophelia, there is a reprise on her answering machine. The play within a play is Hamlet's own video production, presented in a screening room.

Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora play Claudius and Gertrude, as reasonable as any modern materialist parents or stepparents (indeed Gertrude is so modern, she might be literature's first corporate wife). They are a couple comfortable in their affluence, content in their compromises, annoyed as much as disturbed by Hamlet's whingeing. He has had every opportunity, and now look at him, holed up with his resentments and driving his girlfriend crazy. Even Hawke's wardrobe strikes the right note: He wears an ugly knit ski hat that looks a little like a Norse helmet and a lot like the deliberately gauche clothes that teenagers choose to show they reject such middle-class affectations as taste.

Bill Murray is a good choice as Polonius, although Almereyda should have simply let him deliver his great speech to Laertes ("Neither a borrower, nor a lender be. . .") without so much unnecessary business on the soundtrack. Liev Schreiber, as Laertes, is the well-meaning brother of Ophelia, helpless to intervene because his common sense provides no strategy for dealing with their madness. Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are the neighborhood layabouts, and it is a nice touch when Hamlet hacks into their laptop, changing their instructions so they, not he, will be murdered.

I like the way the material has truly been "adapted" to its modern setting without the language being adulterated. Yes, the play has been shortened (Branagh's "Hamlet," one of the rare uncut versions, runs 238 minutes). But it demonstrates how Shakespeare, who in a way invented modern English, has so dominated it ever since that his meanings are always broadly clear to us, even despite unfamiliar usages.

The purpose of this staging of the play is not simply to tart up "Hamlet" in modern dress, but to see him as the young man he was (younger than almost all of the great actors who have played him)--a seething bed of insecurities, guilt, unformed resolution, lust, introspection and self-loathing. It was his misfortune that he was able to express his feelings so clearly that, once stated, they could not be evaded.

He marches here as he marched in Shakespeare's mind toward an ending to life that settles nothing, that answers no questions, that contains victory for no one and confusion for all. The ultimate irony of Shakespeare's final scene, in which the dead king's successor steps over the bloody corpses and prepares for business as usual, is richly ironic in this modern corporate setting. Executives are eviscerated, their wives go down with them, their children die in grand senseless gestures, new management comes in, and the stock price goes up. It happens every day.

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