Published May 01, 2000The latest film adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet tries hard to follow in the footsteps of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet by making it hip, contemporary, and particularly accessible to the lucrative teen audience. Unfortunately it is quite obviously trying, and the results are not entirely successful. Michael Almereyda's adaptation sets the play in present day New York City where Hamlet is an aspiring filmmaker, and Uncle Claudius has just taken over the CEO position for the successful Denmark Corporation from Hamlet's dead father, and promptly married Hamlet's mother. Almereyda has a strong and clear vision of the gleaming postmodern world he wants to create, and cuts the play to fit within the confines of that world.
To that end, many liberties with the original script are taken, which work to enhance the director's slick vision, but often obscure or change the meaning of the play. The film makes too much of portraying the younger generation of characters as cool and disaffected, while the play necessitates that they are later driven by passion to extreme acts. Therefore, both Hamlet and Ophelia's (Julia Stiles) descents into madness end up seeming oddly random and unmotivated, as does Laertes overwhelming desire to avenge his father's death.
In setting it in a corporate kingdom that Hamlet seems to have no interest in being part of, we lose the important factor in the play that Hamlet's rightful position has been usurped by Claudius. Ethan Hawke's Hamlet is sorely lacking a light and clever touch. He can pull off the brooding, mopey side of the character just fine, but can't come up with the charm and the quick wits needed to keep the audience and the other characters guessing if he is indeed going mad, or if he is in part putting on an act in order execute his revenge. This sullen performance makes the audience lose much of the sympathy that they would usually have for Hamlet.
However, the rest of the film's casting is exceptional almost across the board, with especially spectacular performances from Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Verona as Claudius and Gertrude, Liev Schreiber's Laertes, and Karl Geary's Horatio. In fact, the strength of this supporting cast alone is almost reason enough to check out this film. The visual treatment is quite stunning too, creating a pristine world of glass and steel that, along with the ever-present cameras and televisions, reflect the characters' every move. There are also some very clever directorial touches, such as setting the "To be, or not to be" speech in Blockbuster Video's action section. This cleverness is all on the surface though, never penetrating the heart of the play to actually illuminate anything. And that is the downfall of this film- the vision that the director is showing us is admittedly clever and cool, but is ultimately empty because it comes at the expense of the integrity of the material.