Who do you think you are, the Prince of Denmark? Such is the complaint I’d like to lodge with wordy, lordly, self-obsessed people whose introverted grievances often manifest themselves in extroverted acts of harm. Hamlet had always struck me as a curious choice for a hero. It’s true he gave some great speeches and avenged the death of his father, but look at the havoc he wreaked in the meantime. When it comes to loyal sons who slay their evil uncles, Simba in “The Lion King” could teach the Prince a thing or two.
Michael Almereyda (“Nadia”) shows us a Hamlet who never pretends to be anything other than what he is: a wordy, lordly, self-obsessed son trapped in the web of his own nightmare. The director has undertaken to bring “Hamlet” to the screen for the 50th time in history, only this time the backdrop is present-day Manhattan and Hamlet is a young, hip, filmmaker wannabe. He’s so with it in fact, that you want to start calling him “Hammy” but then that would be rude to Ethan Hawke, who plays the role with calculated excellence.
Almereyda wanted to cast someone around 30, which is Hamlet’s estimated age and Hawke was his happy choice. Up to now, heavy-duty gents like Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh had grabbed the part, which is one of the reasons why Hamlet had seemed remote and lofty but somehow comical — here was a guy who wore tights in the most crucial moments of his life.
On the other hand, we can identify with Almereyda’s Hamlet, who looks like he goes to convenience stores a lot and dines off instant noodles. Submerged in the pulsing, blinking world of digital cameras, cell phones and laptops, Hamlet is the chic and fashionable nerd we all know who’s a virtuoso on the keyboard but has trouble maintaining relationships.
The contrast between this figure and his Elizabethan soliloquies (every line in the movie is Shakespeare’s own) is at once weird and delightful. T.S. Eliot once compared Hamlet to Mona Lisa as something too familiar and exposed, and therefore impossible to look at. But this picture proves that there’s room yet for adventure and tantalizing newness.
The “King” and CEO of multimedia company Denmark Corporation dies and the King’s brother Claudius (Kyle Maclachlan) weds the widow Gertrude (Diane Venora). Hamlet, who had been a film student in England, returns to N.Y. for his father’s funeral. He resents his mother’s hasty remarriage and his uncle’s eagerness to step into his father’s shoes. Something smells fishy and sure enough, the King’s ghost (Sam Shepard) appears from a Pepsi vending machine to inform Hamlet that Claudius is his murderer.
That Almereyda made Hamlet a budding filmmaker is revealing, and there are some scenes that draw obvious parallels between directing and Hamlet’s obsessive personality. Hamlet is a prisoner of his own suffering mind, but he’s also “imprisoned by Denmark,” in this case the media conglomerate which has overloaded his life and the streets around him with digitalized visuals.
In every scene there is at least one reference to a camera lens — the Ghost shows up on the bluish screen of a security video, Hamlet’s bedroom wall is decorated with a collage of snapshots. Ophelia (Julia Stiles), that fragile lover of flowers, is never seen with a single live plant but has a collection of floral Polaroids.
All this defines the chrome and smoked-glass texture of “Hamlet”: A single touch is likely to leave fingerprints on its slick, chilly surface. And despite Almereyda’s claim that the production was fast and cheap, the result only speaks of craftsmanship and elegance, used in exactly the right places. The wardrobe designed by Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti, for example, is to drool for: East Village punk artist meets European high fashion in Times Square.
Hawke is wonderful as the snazzy, pouting Hamlet, but the picture is a showcase for new and emerging talent. Look for Dechen Thurman (Uma’s brother), the hottest Guildenstern in history, and Karl Geary who plays Horatio with a stunning, vulnerable charm.
Stealing some scenes from the likes of Venora and Maclachlan is Stiles as Ophelia. Of everyone in the cast, she alone seems to have traveled through time from a 13th-century forest to land with the softest of feet upon N.Y. asphalt. Everything about her will remind you of why Ophelia is a metaphor for girlishness, unrequited love and death as something romantic.