A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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September 5, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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