A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 554 – Hamlet (2000)

Hamlet (2000) – September 5th, 2011

We’re running rather low on Shakespeare adaptations in our collection. I think there are two more left on the list at this point? Maybe I’m forgetting one. I can think of one more we’ll be buying, but other than that, really, we’ve watched what we had. And we’ve seen some good stuff and some interesting stuff and the weirdest I can think of is still to come. But this is definitely its own creature. It’s not quite a modern retelling since the language used is Shakespeare’s and the editing is mostly to pare it down, not to change its plot. But the setting is thoroughly modern, with Denmark a corporation and the story taking place in New York City among high rises and city streets and the Guggenheim.

I first saw this while I was in college and I will admit, I’m sure it’s not everyone cup of tea. It’s not the most polished of adaptations. It’s got rough edges and I’ve got some issues with it and it’s a far cry from Kenneth Branagh’s epic version of the same play. Still, it’s an interesting idea and for the most part I think it’s well conceived and well executed and it has my favorite Ophelia ever, both in that I feel that Julia Stiles plays her well and I feel that the modern trappings given to the role work excellently to give her a solid character arc. It doesn’t work everywhere, but it does work there, and well in enough other places to make me feel like it’s worth watching.

I don’t think I need to really rehash the entire story of Hamlet here. Let’s face it: Hamlet’s one of Shakespeare’s most well known and oft-reproduced plays. It’s fodder for a ton and a half of literary allusions and references and academic works. The high school I went to offered a full year of Shakespeare as a senior year English option, but in addition to that it also offered a full semester on Hamlet alone. Personally, I love Hamlet. Not because I particularly like the main character, but because I think it’s an interesting play that has a whole lot going on in it. And the main character isn’t a black and white character. Not many of the characters in the play are. I’d have to say with the exception of Claudius everyone in the play is pretty grey. Even Ophelia, though she does skew towards the lighter end of the scale. I honestly think characters and plots are more interesting when they’re conflicted.

The alterations to place the story in modern day New York City are largely cosmetic, but oh do those cosmetic changes make an impact. It becomes obvious early on that we’re dealing with CEOs and pampered rich kids, that the castle is a skyscraper and the ghost is appearing on a security camera. Hamlet is an amateur filmmaker and Ophelia a photographer. And somehow the language all works even in apartments with views of the skyline and on crowded city sidewalks and in taxis. I wouldn’t have picked Ethan Hawke to play Hamlet if I’d been asked, but I think he does an admirable enough job with the part with one notable exception, which really isn’t his fault.

It’s the soliloquies. The soliloquies are largely done as voiceovers, which I’m not really in love with. It feels almost as though they were an afterthought, which they shouldn’t be. But they feel almost shoehorned into the movie, played over scenes of Hamlet brooding in various places. And I can see the intent there is to make the soliloquies his internal thought process, kept in his head and never spoken where anyone else could hear. After all, the scenes show him going about his life in the city and that much works. He goes to the library, strolls down the street, sits in an airplane with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and works on his film to try and catch his uncle out. As a New Yorker, clearly he has Things To Do and Places To Go. It wouldn’t really work for the tone of the movie to have him sitting in his room, moping aloud to his editing equipment. But at the same time having the soliloquies as voiceovers during scenes where Hamlet is out doing things ends up making them feel detached from the actions on display. They feel like they’re being added in post, which of course they are, instead of being his thoughts during the scene playing out on screen. Which makes them all feel less immediate and more rehearsed. Which isn’t at all how I want them. Hamlet’s soliloquies should be the thoughts of a mind in turmoil as they occur to him, not later on, carefully pondered.

Fortunately, that’s really my only quibble with the movie. Sure, it’s pared down quite a bit. It’s a short rendition of the play, really. But it does handle a lot of the key issues the play presents. I love the “play” Hamlet shows redone as a film collage. It cuts out the Players, but then they’re mostly important because of the play within a play bit. I enjoy seeing the ghost as an appearance on a security camera. I love that messages are delivered by fax machines and that the letter sent with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is on a laptop. And I especially love that when Ophelia is sent to talk to Hamlet and try to divine what his intentions are, she’s wearing a wire.

Let’s talk about Ophelia for a moment before I wrap up. Wearing that wire is a fantastic piece of character motivation. While the concept of her spying on Hamlet for her father and Claudius is, of course, going to cause her emotional anguish, having the apparent betrayal discovered by Hamlet in a tangible form makes it all the more damning. How can she deny it? How can she argue it? Hamlet’s already angry and dismissive of her. And now she knows that he won’t trust her, if ever he was inclined to again. And in turn, who can she trust? It makes her death (also handled nicely, and I love the conceit with the flower photos) all the more tragic to me. I truly love this Ophelia, both for the performance and for the presentation that allowed the performance.

Overall, like I said, this isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste. If you’re looking for a traditional and complete (or close to complete) rendition of Hamlet then this is most certainly not it. Mark off a day on your calendar and go find the Branagh version if that’s what you’re looking for. But if you’d like a fascinating cross between an adaptation and a traditional performance, then this is it. It’s got good acting, excellent visuals and interesting choices, which is really all I ask from an adaptation. Do something interesting and at least do it well most of the time. I can forgive some flaws, but so long as the heart of the play is there, then it can be made to work. And this does.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Hamlet (2000)

September 5, 2011

Hamlet (2000)

We own about four versions of this most famous Shakespeare play. We’ve already reviewed for our project the complete and uncut play as produced by Kenneth Branaugh. We’ve also reviewed the Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) wherin Adam Long and his compatriots do a very much abbreviated version of Hamlet, then do it faster, then do it faster still, then do it backwards. Although we haven’t reviewed it (because our vast MST collection is not a part of this project) we even have a black and white version of the film produced for German television. So come we tonight to this, the millennial adaptation of the film set in the modern day and starring, amongst many others, Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

This version of the takes the tale replaces the medieval kingdoms of the play with the modern royalty of today – the uber-rich aristocracy of the corporate aristocracy. Denmakr, therefore is a corporation, the head of which has recently died. The son of the head of Denmark Corp, Hamlet, returns from school for the funeral and is shocked to find his mother already being betrothed to his dead father’s brother. The story is unchanged of course, and the dialog is all Shakespeare, but it is much truncated and the order of some scenes is altered (for example it begins not with “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt” but with Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about what a beast is man.)

Hawke’s Hamlet is not so much mad as sullen. He’s an artist and a angst ridden recluse, but he never seems insane. He toys with video cameras and monitors and a small portable editing deck. The play-within-a-play takes the form of a home-made film. (The players are gone entirely.) Hamlet’s melancholy airs fir perfectly into the generation-why mould of an idle teenager in the late nineties. His many soliloquies are split between voice-overs of his inner monologue and video diaries.

Ophelia, for her part, is a photographer in this version. The flowers she presents to her brother during her final speech are polaroid pictures. When she is sent by her father and Hamlet’s uncle the new king to spy on Hamlet they listen on on a concealed wire. It is during these two scenes that I am most moved by this production. Julia Stiles is an exceptional actress, and her Ophelia is almost painful to watch in her desperation as Hamlet, in his obsession, first denies his love for her and then accidentally kills her father. Really hers is the most tragic story in the entire tale of Hamlet – an innocent who is used and discarded – who looses everything she holds dear.

The modern day setting of the story works pretty well for the most part. The substitution of faxes for messengers, computer documents for missives, planes for ships all do not feel inappropriate. There is a very odd couple scenes that take place in a Blockbuster store which feel particularly strange to me, since I worked in a store that looked just like that (beck before DVDs replaced all the tapes on the shelves. Only for the climactic scene does it seem a little odd that Laertes and Hamlet choose to duel using foils. (The first time I watched this I wondered through the entire film how they were going to make this scene work since they had replaced swords throughout with guns. They do modernise it somewhat using electric fencing gear and dispensing with the poison-tipped sword, but the duel itself seems an anachronism in the world of the movie.

As is often the case with high profile Shakespearean adaptations there’s a fantastic cast gathered together here. Bill Murray in the role of Polonius does what I think is the best job of taking the Shakespearean dialog and making it feel understandable and natural in the mouth of a modern character. There are all kinds of familiar faces throughout the production from Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius to Liev Schreiber as Laertes and even brief appearances by Tim Blake Nelson and Paul Bartel. My favorite moment in the entire film is the epilogue, delivered by Robert MacNeil (familiar to any fan of PBS news in the eighties and nineties) as a news report.

I do admit that Hamlet is not my favorite play of all time. I’m just not a fan of tragedy in general, and there is so much angst and pain in this script. I do enjoy seeing different interpretations of the same work though. I like seeing how a new cast and director can breathe new life into a familiar subject. This is a great example of that, and it makes me want to see other versions as well. I don’t think we’re likely to get the Mel Gibson one, but I’d very much like to get the Laurence Olivier some day. For now we’re done with Hamlet though. More’s the pity.

September 5, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment