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Hamlet (2000) 
Director Michael Almereyda
Starring Ethan Hawke, Liev Schreiber, Kyle MacLachlan, Julia Stiles, Diane Venora
Running time 111 minutes

When in doubt, film Shakespeare. I'm not sure who uttered those words, but they have been closely followed by a number of art-house movie studios in the last few years. We've had Othello, Titus, Taming of the Shrew, The Tempest, Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, and two different versions of Romeo and Juliet, and that's just off the top of my head. Later this year, we'll have Love's Labour's Lost and another Othello. And this week we have Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke (Snow Falling on Cedars).

Unless you're a teenage girl or young woman, I suspect that the thought of Ethan Hawke playing the tortured Dane does not conjure rosy visions of success. Not that Hawke is a terrible actor, but his roles in Gattaca, Great Expectations, and Reality Bites seemed to rely more on his disheveled good looks than any core of ability.

Wisely, this version of Hamlet seems to do the same. May I introduce to you, Hamlet, the grunge prince of Denmark. Born and raised in Seattle, moved to New York where he's currently slumming as a video artist, while his mother, makes whoopee with his uncle, the new head of Denmark Corp. Yes, Denmark Corp.

Like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, director and screenwriter Michael Almereyda has updated the Bard's tragedy to modern times by keeping the core of the language while transforming the ancient references into contemporary, postmodern ones. Hence, the country of Denmark becomes a multi-national company. The wedding of Claudius and Gertrude (Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora) is recast as a press conference about the company's transferal of leadership. The epilogue is read by veteran news anchor Roger McNeil. And Polonius becomes Bill Murray. Yes, Bill Murray.

Hamlet's cast is a strange mix of stage actors (Jeffrey Wright and Diane Venora, whose theater credits outweigh her film listings) with distinguished Hollywood types (MacLachlan and Liev Schreiber as Laertes) and out-of-the-blue casting decisions like Murray. Of course, Bill has been slowly transforming himself lately, leaving behind the silly comic roles of Ghostbusters and What About Bob for more dramatic ones like his acclaimed performance in Rushmore. Here, he acquits himself nicely, though his Polonius becomes a much more comic character than usual. Instead of adopting Shakespeare's rhythm, Murray sticks to his own distinctive cadence, which creates some provocative line readings (particularly in his conversations with MacLachlan) but also some unintentional humor.

Another weird but effective decision is casting playwright Sam Shepard as the ghost. His strong and raging performance is much more interesting than the despondent ghosts I've seen on the stage. Not as capable is Julia Stiles (Ten Things I Hate About You) as Ophelia. Admittedly, Ophelia is a difficult part, with few line readings and a continuous state of despondency and onsetting insanity. But Stiles, Miramax's house ingenue, can't pull it off. When her madness finds its fullest expression at the Guggenheim Museum's circular gallery, I found myself wincing at its amateurish quality.

And then there's Hawke himself, who strangely has little to do. Almereyda, whose film credits include a number of short and independent movies, turns Hamlet into a video hound who films everything in sight and spends hours editing in his untidy apartment. Portraying Hamlet as a young man who spends more time observing than doing is certainly a time-worn interpretation. But the result is more interesting than that. Hamlet's show-play, designed to expose his uncle, is instead a short video assembled from shots of other films. The famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy is transformed into a provocative editing session where Hamlet prepares a potential suicide "note." And as Hamlet wrestles with his course of action, we see him watching an old James Dean movie and wondering, "What would he do?"

This sort of contemporizing is useful as a commentary both on Hamlet and our society. How often do people, particularly of Hamlet's age, take their cues from contemporary culture, especially film? How does our culture's obsession with self echo in a play 400 years old? What is the human condition, and how has it changed over the centuries?

One thing that hasn't changed unfortunately is the last quarter of Hamlet? I realize this might be sacrilegious in this neighborhood, but I find the last 30-45 minutes of Hamlet to be thoroughly dull. After Claudius's prayer, where Hamlet hesitates in killing his uncle, the rest of the tragedy slides downhill. The same is true in Almereyda's version. For some reason, Hamlet stops using his camcorder, which has been the singularly most interesting aspect of the movie. This leaves us with different speeches that predictably lead to the bloody and, if you ask me, boring finish.

The film's visual style, created by cinematographer John de Borman (The Full Monty) and production designer Gideon Ponte (American Psycho) is suitably dark and sleek. Composer Carter Burwell (Fargo) produces a score that swings between industrial electronica and big symphonic scores. And thumbs up to costume designers Marco Cattoretti and Luca Mosca, particularly in their beautiful designs for Julia Stiles, who is nothing if not gorgeous.

J. Robert Parks 5/16/2000

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