Going into Michael Almereydas new Hamlet, Bardolaters
had every reason to fear the worst. The experimental filmmaker was best
known for Nadja, a black and white vampire film that featured
Pixelvisionvideo produced by a $45 Fisher-Price PXL 2000 toy camera.
Almereyda, who wrote and directed this low-budget film, also used flashbacks
of Bela Lugosi footage and worked in a sub-text about HIV infection.
Like much avant-garde filmmaking, Najda was more style than substancenot
a promising preface to Shakespeare.
Thumbing his nose at traditionalists, Almereyda announced that his
Denmark was to be a multinational corporation headquartered in New York
City instead of a kingdom, and Elsinore a ritzy apartment hotel instead
of a palace. A Hamlet for "Generation Next," the play
would run less than two hours. The official Miramax Web site proclaimed,
"The President of the Denmark Corporation is dead, and already
his wife is remarried to the man suspected of the murder. Nobody is
more troubled than her son Hamlet (Ethan Hawke). Now, after this hostile
takeover, trust is impossible, passion is on the rise and revenge is
in the air." Sounds like the Madison Avenue version of the greatest
play in the English language. Surely this could only mean that the seven
magnificent soliloquies had been butchered and the development of all
of the plays complex characters had been compromised. There was
no way that Hamlet could be the moralizing, psychologizing, politicizing,
improvising, existentialist actor-prince in this bowdlerizing version.
Every character in Hamlet is in some way deeply ambiguous and
each actors and directors interpretation of a part can tilt
the moral adventure of the play. Is Queen Gertrude an innocent dupe,
or had she already committed adultery with Claudius before he killed
her husband? The Ghost, in his speech to Hamlet, describes her as won
over to that "shameful lust." Has Ophelia already had an affair
with Hamlet before her brother and father warn her to guard her virginity?
Shakespeare filled her mad scene with bawdy double entendres. Is Polonius
a shrewd courtier who rightly has the ear of King Claudius, or is he
the "prating fool" that Hamlet proclaims him? John Updikes
recent Hamlet prequel imagines Polonius as a co-conspirator in
the adulterous regicidal plot. Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserve
their terrible fate? Tom Stoppard wrote an entire play pursuing that
question. And what about Hamlet? Has he merely put on an "antic
disposition," as he warns his friend Horatio in the first act?
Or has he gone mad, as he explains himself to Laertes in the last act?
Volumes have been devoted to Hamlets possible diagnoses.
The answers to these questions of character shape our understanding
of the play, and there are many other ambiguities of the text that every
director and his actors will struggle to resolve, knowing that Bardolaters
will sit in judgment of every nuance. The late John Gielgud, who reputedly
was the best Hamlet of his generation, wryly observed that in no other
role does one hear members of the audience loudly whispering your lines.
How to interpret those sometimes baffling lines has been the challenge
to all the great actors who have had the courage to attempt that unforgettable
poetry. And there is no certain or definitive rendition. Hamlets
character and his ideas are inescapably complex and every simplification
seems an oversimplificationparticularly on film, where the actors
interpretation can be scrutinized again and again. Even Oliviers
1948 Oscar-winning performance seems, in retrospect, to have short shrifted
the other characters and reduced Hamlet to his Oedipus complex and Sir
Laurences narcissism. And that was Olivier. What cartoon characters
could one expect from a director who had cut the more than four hour
play down to 112 minutes?
Almereyda "Let the great axe fall" on the entire dynastic
structure of the play. The question of whether Claudius has "popped
in" to the line of royal secession by marrying Gertrude and thus
prevented Hamlet from becoming king is lopped off. Hamlet is no longer
a prince, and the play within the play is also no longer the "thing
that catches the conscience of the king." Henry James noted that
Shakespeare the artist is everywhere in his plays, but Shakespeare the
man is nowhere in them. My fantasy has always been that Hamlet is the
character who comes closest to being the person Shakespeare was. And
Almereyda has taken the liberty of making this Hamlet in his own
imagea student filmmaker whose "mousetrap" is a
homemade video instead of a play. That radical translation not only
allows the director to make the play his own, if you can stomach this
colossal conceit; it is a marvelously apt strategy for this hi-tech,
New York Hamlet. He enters the kings court, now a corporate press
conference, with a video device in each hand; facing down the world
with his camera instead of his mordant wit. The Ghost, first glimpsed
on the Elsinore Hotels security monitors, disappears into a "Pepsi
One" dispenser. Every scene contains fax machines, video displays,
Polaroid cameras, voice mail, and, of course, the PXL 2000. One critic
nailed the film as the "Radio Shack Hamlet." But taken "all
for all" it works brilliantly.
Almereyda, as it turns out, is a serious and gifted filmmaker. Dig
into his resume and you discover that he wrote an original screenplay
for Wim Wenders. He based his own first film on the Lermontov novel
A Hero of Our Time, and his stylish vampire film was produced
by David Lynch. Lynch considers him the best of the new wave of directors,
and judging by his Hamlet, Lynch may be right. His intelligence
makes this Hamlet sparkle. His idea was to make a film that would
be an echo chamber for a text that is alive in the minds of his audience.
To prepare himself for his project, Almereyda went through film archives
and studied every Hamlet film that had ever been produced, including
the silent versions. He read and reread the play as well as some
of the literary criticism. He appropriated everything he liked from
earlier performances and then steeped it all in his own quirky irony
and the grainy, magnified, black-and-white images of his trademark Pixelvision.
Almereyda threw himself, his wit, and his sly humor into the project
and reinvented the play as an American film for the 21st century. But
despite all the novelty, this is not for beginners. This is Hamlet
for "insiders," people who really know and love the play and
still want to be surprised by its possibilities. Orthodox Bardolaters
with settled expectations will find much to lament. The play within
the play is lost, and with it Hamlets wonderful directions to
the players, "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action."
Many other favorite lines and scenes are gone. Still, those who welcome
radical invention will taste Shakespeares wine in Almereydas
Almereyda chose Ethan Hawke as his Hamlet. He is reportedly the first
actor under thirty to play the part in a film. Hawke was eager to take
on serious roles and jumped at the opportunity. With Hawke on board,
Almereyda began assembling an unlikely crew of American actors, among
whom the most intriguing choice was Bill Murray, the actor-comedian,
who was cast as Polonius. Diane Venora, a distinguished actress who
had been the gender-bending Hamlet of Joseph Papps 1983 stage
production, accepted the role of Gertrude. The teenaged Julia Stiles,
who like Hawke started acting in film as a child, would be a "new"
Ophelia. Liev Schreiber, known in independent film circles and a seasoned
stage actor who had done his own Hamlet, agreed to be Ophelias
brother Laertes. The extraordinary Sam Shepard, playwright and sometime
actor, signed on to do the Ghost. And the crucial role of the fratricidal
Claudius, who looms large in this production, was assigned to Kyle MacLachlan.
A David Lynch favorite (he starred in Twin Peaks and Blue
Velvet), MacLachlan looks and acts like a department store mannequin
but is perfect in this role.
Orson Welles described his own low-budget Macbeth film as a
"charcoal sketch of Shakespeares play," and Almereyda
makes the same claim for his low-budget Hamlet. However, a charcoal
sketch implies a clear outline. This Hamlet is more a collage
of cut-up and out-of-order pieces that audiences will have to re-assemble
in their own minds. Thus, Shakespeares inspired lines from act
2, scene 2 are placed at the beginning of the film: "What [a] piece
of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in
form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a godthe beauty of the world the paragon
of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
Hamlet speaks these lines to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play,
but in the film Almereyda deploys them as a Hamlet soliloquy to establish
Hawkes character. Dare one say that it is better as a soliloquy?
Almereyda gambled that everyone who sees his movie will know the play
and will be able to connect the dots he sets out. For example, the entire
gravediggers scene ("alas poor Yorick") from act 5 is compressed
into a dot-like image of Jeffrey Wright shoveling dirt out of a deep
hole. Wright, an overnight success in the 1996 film about the avant-garde
graffiti painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, will be unrecognizable even to
his most devoted fans. To anyone who is unfamiliar with the play, that
gravedigger nanosecond will be a surrealistic incident. Ophelias
coffin is being buried elsewhere in this modern cemetery and there are
no gravediggers and no Yorick Skull in the scene.
As if mindful of what he has left out, Almereyda sets out another dota
quick cut to a theater poster of Gielgud in "the alas poor Yorick"
moment. Gielgud looks almost as ancient as the skull he is holding.
It is like a condensed image in a dreampart homage, part ridicule
of the venerable Hamlet.
Almereyda has an astonishing theatrical grasp of the play: one can
sense it in every choice he makes. But he has no Royal Shakespeare Company
pretensions. This is a Jazz Hamlet, with the reckless creativity
of bebop. Every directorial improvisation, like the poster of Gielgud,
is a riff on some previous interpretation of the play.
The youthful Ethan Hawke gives something less than a virtuoso performance
as Hamlet. The lines are quite obviously too much for him. But in this
stylish fast-moving production, that is not the disaster one might expect.
Almereyda has suited the action to his actors.
Since this is a Denmark without a royal throne, it is not unreasonable
to imagine that the son of an American merger king would be an aspiring
filmmaker and that his girlfriend Ophelia would be a still photographer.
They are the artistically minded anti-establishment children of New
Yorks new limousine class. They have all of the privileges of
wealth but reject the corporate-culture values of their parents. This
Hamlet obviously does not want to follow in his fathers footsteps
as CEO of a major multinational corporation. And Ophelia is no reclusive
virgin. She is a feisty young woman who has her own East Village studio
loft with a darkroom to develop her films. Roles like these are not
a stretch for Hawke and Stiles. For the first half of the film, Hamlet,
when he is not in his apartment watching black and white Pixel videos
of his dead father, makes his anti-corporate-culture statement by wearing
one of those knitted Peruvian hats with earflaps one sees on flute-playing
street musicians. Ophelia wears baggy raver pants and sneakers. Together
they are the sullen outsiders at the shareholders meeting where the
pin-striped Claudius announces he has replaced his brother, married
his wife, and resisted a hostile takeover by Fortinbras.
Although Almereyda sets his Hamlet in New York City and films
the action against Times Square, glass sky scrapers, the Guggenheim,
and other recognizable landmarks, the imaginative cinematography creates
not the gritty reality but an other-worldly New York. The visual location
of the film, very much like Shakespeares own Denmark, is an imagined
actualitya place outside real time. The Pixelvision on the screen
casts ghost-like images that conjure up the something rotten in the
state of Denmark. Inter-cut with the lush, high-quality cinematography
of the other-worldly New York, it makes a striking contrast.
Almereyda, by eliminating the political, foregrounds the personal Hamlet
and Ophelia relationship. Instead of a prince and a commoner, they become
star-crossed lovers whose tragic affair is central to this non-dynastic
plot. There have been many productions of the play in which Hamlets
feelings for the frail and pious Ophelia pale next to his love for his
true and trusted friend Horatio: "Give me that man that is not
passions slave, and I will wear him in my hearts core, ay,
in my heart of heart, as I do thee." From first to last Hamlet
is gentle and trusting with Horatio, and, as Granville Barker points
out, only with him. In the final scene, as Shakespeare wrote it, Horatio
proves this love is not one-sided. He wants to finish the poisoned wine
and die with his beloved Hamlet. The dying prince begs him to live and
suffer awhile, "to tell my story." What greater trust could
Hamlet and Shakespeare bequeath to Horatio?
Almereyda de-emphasizes the HamletHoratio relationship and provides
Horatio with a girlfriend (Marcellus of the night watch becomes Marcella),
who strikingly changes the male chemistry. She is one of only three
significant characters who have been added to Shakespeares dramatis
personae (the others are Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist Guru, and
Robert MacNeil, formerly of PBS news). I take it that Almereyda chose
to suppress the homophilic and misogynist undercurrents in the play.
Almereydas echo chamber nevertheless allows us many of the reverberations
of Shakespeares play. Several strategies combine to this result.
First is the use of Shakespeares actual language: cut back relentlessly,
those magic words manage to summon the echoes of all the rest. Almereydas
wit is an unpredictable catalyst. His hi-tech devices shrewdly, ironically,
even humorously give Shakespeares substance a new stylea
style that reminds us that Hamlet has a number of wickedly funny
lines. The hi-tech devices also, surprisingly, help the plot along.
A good example is the famous "get thee to a nunnery" scene.
Distrusting Ophelia, Hamlet has become stand- offish. His attitude toward
her, as reflected in Shakespeares lines, changes dramatically
in the middle of the "nunnery" scene. To explain that change
Branagh and many other directors have created a stage direction (few
if any of the original stage directions exist) in which Hamlet sees
something that makes him realize that they are being spied on and that
Ophelia may be in on it"Are you honest?"
Almereyda builds on that premise. We are shown Polonius wiring the
recalcitrant Ophelia before he "looses" her on the unwitting
Hamlet. Hawkes Hamlet, though wary, cannot resist this passionate
Ophelia. They embrace and as his hand caresses her body it encounters
the wirethe uncontestable evidence of a hi-tech betrayal. Most
of Hamlets long speech has been sacrificed but the few words that
are left juxtaposed against the wire give the scene a dramatic clarity
that many Hamlets have not matched.
Almereyda made a virtue of necessity: he did not ask his actors to
attempt the high style of British actors who have been schooled in the
prosody, mastered the rhythms of Shakespeares iambic pentameter,
and can project to the second balcony. The truth is most American actors
look silly and unnatural when they make the effort. One need only rerun
the video of Marlon Brando trying to do Marc Anthony in Joseph L. Mankiewiczs
Julius Caesar. Almereyda wisely encouraged his actors to "draw
on their own experience and traditions, rather than classical Shakespearean
The cast did just that. The notable exception was Liev Schreiber, who
had trained at the Royal Academy and knows how the British do it. It
is true that he does not look silly saying the lines, but he is certainly
out of place in this cast. His performance has been a litmus test for
critics. Those who do not like the film tend to think that Schreiber
is the only one in the cast who can act: "The only tragic thing
new Hamlet is the lonely spectacle of Liev Schreiber
giving a deeply felt, expertly spoken performance as Laertes,"
wrote Jonathan Foreman of the New York Post. Since I am of the
mind that Almereydas American re-conception is the inventive strength
of the film, it seems to me that Schreiber has made a lonely spectacle
of himself. He seems to be declaiming in the spit-flying style of the
English stage while the rest of the cast has the typical psychological
inwardness of American film actors, whose "method" recognizes
the power of the medium.
Sam Shepard reported his own experience trying to master the iambic
pentameter of the Ghost. He ordinarily approaches a role by first attempting
to understand the psychology of the character he is to play. But Shakespeares
meter was so insistent he had to deal with the poetry first. Eventually,
he worked his way through the language to the psychology and his American
Ghost was believably father-likeand not just the sepulchral spirit
of most Shakespearean actors. Still, this is film and Shepards
visual presence on the screen counts for more than his acting. The handsome
weatherworn face makes every glimpse of him memorable.
Bill Murray had never done Shakespeare before and Polonius is a difficult
role that would challenge any actor. If this is a Jazz Hamlet,
Murrays Polonius is a wonderful improvisation. Instead of trying
to make himself into Polonius, Murray riffed his own persona into the
part. His first great hurdle was how to speak the all too familiar lines
of paternal advice to Laertes. Would he be a prating fool or a wise
father? He spoke his homily, pared down to a minimum, as if paying lip
service to his own hypocrisy. Establishing his character as an intrusive
father he helps the departing Laertes pack and secretly slips a roll
of bills into his coat pocket before urging him, "Neither a lender
nor a borrower be." Then hugging his son he gives the camera and
the audience one of his trademark "Can you believe this?"
grimaces. This Polonius is neither wise nor foolish. He is the ingratiating,
but ironic, clown that has made Bill Murray a success.
The same critics who think that Liev Schreiber is the only member of
the cast who can act pan Murrays Polonius. What I take to be patented
grimaces at the camera they understand as Murray searching for cue cards.
There is an entire dimension to this film that can be understood as
sophisticated and stylish or sophomoric and inept. Thus one critic complained
that there were too many visual distractions that took away from the
acting (e.g., Hamlet walking down the "Action" aisle of a
Blockbuster Video store while doing the "to be or not to be"
soliloquy). But Almereyda, it seems to me, knows exactly what he is
doing. Those visual distractions are both ironic and perhaps necessary.
Many of Hamlets lines are spoken in voiceover, so we do not actually
often have the potentially painful experience of watching Ethan Hawke
in the act of speaking Hamlets lines. It is as though Almereyda
understands that Hawke cannot carry it off if the camera catches him
in the very act of mouthing his lines.
The "to be or not to be" soliloquy is the ultimate test for
an actor, and even a man of Branaghs talents chose to amplify
his performance in a hall of mirrors. Almereyda took something from
that. He has Hawke doing the "How all occasions do inform against
me" soliloquy while looking into the mirror of an airplane toilet.
But for the "to be or not to be" soliloquy Almereyda made
another imaginative reach. Before his New York Hamlet goes video shopping,
he watches the Buddhist Guru Thich Nhat Hanh on television. Thich is
talking about how to coexist with other living things in the natural
worldor, in his neologistic phrase, how to "inter be."
The Buddhist Gurus "inter be" soliloquy has all of that
holy mans guileless charm and humility. It is a surprising and
ingenious countertext of Eastern transcendence pitted against Hamlets
anguished existentialism. And the action signs in the video shopping
venue for the "to be or not to be" soliloquy reverberate in
Almereydas ironic echo chamber.
The film also has insider moments for film buffs, as when Ophelia unpacks
her handbag of "remembrances" from Hamlet. The last thing
she takes out is a little rubber duck. The audience laughs at this childish
memento but, in fact, this is Almereydas homage to Finnish director
Aki Kaurismäki, whose 1987 satire Hamlet Goes Business had
Claudius cornering the world market in bath toys. Almereydas final
ironic improvisation is Robert MacNeils epilogue. He comes on
after the mayhem of the last act as though it is the PBS news hour.
His lines are those of the Player Kings: "Our will and fates
do so contrary run that our devices still are our overthrown; our thoughts
are ours, their ends none of our own." Again the appearance of
MacNeil reading the poetry as news provokes laughter. But knowing the
lines and where they come from in the play ironizes the absurd humor.
If one looks closely and quickly, one sees that MacNeils thoughts
are not his own: he is reading from a teleprompter.
Although Almereyda gave the actors room to interpret their roles and
improvise, he made choices about their lines and thus their characters.
The two women in this New York Hamlet are particularly intriguing,
and underscore with particular force Almereydas inventiveness.
Julia Stiles was determined to play Ophelia as a strong young woman
rather than as the fragile victim. She is not a conventionally pretty
actress and she abandons any appearance of innocent naiveté.
Laertes still has the lines of cautionary advice to his sister on preserving
her "chaste treasure" but this petulant New Yorker does not
conjure up an image of virginal chastity on the screen. Her strong willed
Ophelia goes howling with rage into madnessnot because she is
broken by the murder of her father by Hamlet, but because it is the
only way she can protest what these men have done to her.
Venora is also an interestingly different Gertrude. She has been stripped
of almost all her lines and is limited to her presence on the screen.
Her Gertrude is radiantly sexual, like a woman who unexpectedly catches
fire in her forties, and all of her heat is aimed at the conquering
Claudius. But then comes the famous bedroom scene with Hamlet. Many
Hamlets, including Olivier and Burton, brought obvious sexual overtones
into this bedroom wrestling match. This Gertrude is shaken to the core,
and its not about sex; it is about her denial. Shakespeares
play does not tell us whether Gertrude believes Hamlets accusation.
Recall that she too has watched the play within the play ("the
lady doth protest too much")did she get it? Does she pass
Hamlets tirade off as "the very coinage of [his] brain"?
She has a moment of remorse: "These words like daggers enter in
my ears." But Gertrude certainly never turns on Claudius; indeed
she is protective when later Laertes threatens him. And in the play
as written there is no reason to believe in the duel scene that Gertrude
knows she is drinking from the poisoned cup: "The queen carouses
to thy fortune, Hamlet" is her line. It seems unwitting; indeed
many directors have made Gertrude into a witless sot who is never without
a glass in her hand and has no idea what is rotten in Denmark. And Almereydas
Gertrude also conspicuously takes to the bottle after her bedroom confrontation
with Hamlet. In a scene designed to underline her drinking problem,
she steps out of the limousine that drops Hamlet off at JFK airport
for his banishment to England. Teetering on high heels and holding a
glass, she kisses him good-bye and staggers back into the car. This
Gertrudes denial has been undercut by Hamlets confrontation.
In the duel scene, she gives Claudius an unmistakable look of comprehension
before she willfully drinks the poisoned wine. She is on to his poisons
and her own complicity.
Ophelia and Gertrude for centuries have been hapless women who go to
their deaths by accident in Shakespeares playOphelia too
mad to recognize her danger, Gertrude unwittingly carousing to her doomed
son. But Almereydas women are made of sterner stuff. Shakespeares
women are locked into tragedy, and they must die. This Gertrude and
Ophelia do it on their own terms.
Hamlet 2000 is an unexpected delight. It may be "caviary
to the general." But it was (as I perceived it, and others whose
judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine) "an excellent
[film], well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as
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