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Review: (***) Hamlet, (2000) starring Ethan Hawke, directed by Michael Almereyda

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This production of Hamlet, with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet,  is available:

As a DVD for  £14.94 at Amazon.co.uk (N.B. a Region 1 import)

As a DVD for $7.99 at Amazon.com

 Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.

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Our Bottom Line:

Worth seeing but contrivance is all.

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Our Review (***)

Forget majesty – and nobility come to that. ‘Our whole kingdom’ is become the Denmark Corporation, the King is its Chairman, Elsinore is a business hotel downtown, and Fortinbras is a corporate raider on the front page of ‘USA Today’. Get the picture? You should, because this is a filmmaker’s Hamlet: imagined, abstracted and adapted. It’s also all American, and on that count alone is well worth seeing. This is a dark, mirthless, ‘take’ of 107 minutes with an ominous soundtrack. When Hamlet speaks, mournfully, of Man as the ‘beauty of the world’ you see grainy footage of a stealth bomber strike.

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It is a strong cast: Ethan Hawke is Hamlet and actually looks 25, which is a big plus. He’s also very good at melancholy. Kyle MacLachlan is the King, and has the suits, the chiselled features and the poise of a man who knows how to trash the competition and court shareholders and the media. Diane Venora is his Queen, a beautiful, loyal, asset. Julia Stiles (of the Bourne films) is excellent as Ophelia with Liev Schreiber alongside as a brooding, right-minded, Laertes whilst Bill Murray is Polonius and gives a wonderful, almost guileless, performance.

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However, what really prevails is New York City and – surprisingly – the year. This is NYC, 2000, and Hamlet, in Peru hat and tassels, seems all over it, loitering almost, until you remember who he is and that he makes video journals. These are moody shots, played back and forth, of his face, of his parents, of his own apartment, of Ophelia’s, of Horatio’s. On his busy desk there are three reading lamps, a desktop PC, a second screen, and … a typewriter. Ophelia’s grungy place is probably in the Meatpacking District, pre-High Line and Apple Shop. Horatio lives with his girlfriend and one of them at least is an arts student who reads Mayakovsky. Hamlet, in hoody and leather jacket, rides pillion on Horatio’s motorbike on the expressway. The Hotel Elsinore has a swimming pool, probably on its 40th floor. Tragically for Ophelia, there’s a water feature in the lobby too. Locations include the Guggenheim – as Ophelia descends its spiral ramp into madness; a coin laundry where the King and minder smash Hamlet against machine No2; and – marvellously! –  a Blockbuster video store, ‘Action’ section, for ‘To Be or Not to Be’.

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‘The Mousetrap’ is, of course, a film: edited by Hamlet, cutting between home movies, a glimpse of porn, and a rose wilting. A King, in ‘old’ costume grins maniacally and Pres. Claudius calls for light before stumbling into his limo, chauffeured by Hamlet, who has a gun.

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As in basketball or football, there are plenty of skilful ‘assists’ towards the main event. I’d put Sam Shepard’s Ghost in this category. He doesn’t say much, but he hugs his son, and has one hell of a ‘look’ in Gertrude’s bedroom. Hamlet drags Polonius’ body through the hotel staff locker room. Then there’s Horatio helping the dying Hamlet to his feet and – remarkably –   ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ is voiced in-flight.

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And it’s the tech’ that does too much informing. Ethan Hawke, in an interview ‘Extra’, says that the film is about the whole play and not just its central character. ‘Full and cohesive’ is how he puts it, using cinema to advantage, and yet – Heavens! –  the Gravediggers didn’t make the final cut. My conclusion is that so much ‘modernity’ layers this ‘Hamlet’ that its many, many scenes become a film of mergers and acquisitions, which is what happens when you put the King on Wall Street. The Prince’s video camera looks a relic in 2017. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern fax in their report and even the market quotes on the electronic displays look past it. The best, for me, is Murray’s use of language and the excitement of the close: the fencing bout when the beeps of the scoring box actually make you jump and all is how it should be, with lots of blood.

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Let’s Play!

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Alan Brown,
Editor
Players-Shakespeare.com

 

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