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26 January 2006

Hamlet (2000)

Ethan Hawke (Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius), Sam Shepard (Ghost), Bill Murray (Polonius), Liev Schreiber (Laertes), and Julia Stiles (Ophelia)

Directed by Michael Almereyda

From IMDB: "Modern day adaptation, set in New York City, of Shakespeare's immortal story about Hamlet's plight to avenge his father's murder."

Shakespeare is such a trip. One minute, actors are quipping with such archaic and frankly difficult language and then - bang - out pops a familiar, clichéd saying like "neither a borrower nor a lender be." How often, during the course of this film, did I smile in cheerful recognition upon hearing some phrase that has become, to our ears, so familiar and anonymous? But no - it was The Bard. His influence, even down to the words we use in daily conversations some four hundred years later, is astounding.

However, I would be thinking and, most likely, writing these things about any play of Shakespeare's creation. So, leaving aside the wit and biting accuracy of his language, I will proceed to my discussion of this Hamlet in particular.

First, who is Michael Almereyda? And how did he assemble such an ambitious cast with so little directorial experience? What about this film or this director induced Casey Affleck (Fortinbras, a non-speaking character), Jeffrey Wright (the gravedigger who sings three lines from "All Along the Watchtower"), and Tim Blake Nelson (the airline captain who has one line) to accept such tiny little parts? Makes me curious.

Next, what happened to Ethan Hawke? In this film, he was normal. He had the same handsome candor of all his work from the 1990s. Then, in Tape (made only one year later), he possesses this craven, wolfish appearance full of sharp angles, sunken cheeks, and fatigue lines. Through Training Day, Before Sunset and other films from 2000 forward, he has retained (and somewhat increased) this harsh look. His children were born in 1998 and 2002, so it wasn't them. He was married to Uma between 1998-2004, so it wasn't her. The transformation is really quite astounding, with no hint of his current, extreme manifestation seen in this fresh-faced role. Curious again.

Finally, I have little experience with modern adaptations of Shakespeare that use the original language. I process language of such high intellect much better if I can read along, so my advantage with this DVD viewing was the captions! I would have found this helpful during my one attempt at Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. Maybe I need to try that one again on DVD, despite my inexplicable Claire Danes aversion.

I have, however, watched two recent adaptations that use contemporary language, both of which retained, more or less, the spirit of the original (and both of which starred Julia Stiles: 10 Things I Hate About You and O). This Hamlet, for all of its modern trappings, was about familiar actors tackling Shakespeare. The cell phones, fax machines, airplanes, modern music, and camcorders made the interpretation interesting, visually, but if I wanted to hear Shakespeare's original language, I would not choose to see it on film. I kept wondering how many takes each scene required, where such luxuries are not permitted stage actors. The novelty of the telling was more apparent than the spirit of the play.

That said, I must mention particular performances. Ethan Hawke was fine, if a little self-absorbed and youthful (than again, that's Hamlet). Kyle MacLachlan selected "over- acting" as his style (then again, that's Kyle MacLachlan). And Julia Stiles, for all of her Shakespeare-light experiences, which were fine performances, could not sustain even the minor Ophelia she was given here. To portray madness is a fine line between realism and comedy, and she forfeited the entire enterprise in favor of mild brooding and random screaming.

However, Bill Murray was a fantastic Polonius. His dry, self-deprecating sense of humor made for a perfect court jester / advisor, both trying his employer's patience and amusing himself profusely. Scenes of sympathy and tenderness, with both Ophelia and Laertes, were deftly handled, and I wondered again, approvingly, at the miracle of Murray's career in entertainment.

And then there was Liev Schreiber, known for his work in the Scream trilogy and as Raymond Shaw in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Whereas he had no hope of competing with Hugh Jackman in Kate & Leopold, poor guy, he had my full attention throughout his every scene in Hamlet. He was remarkable! Every line was gently, quietly delivered with the assurance of speaking in everyday conversation - none of the over-enunciation and staccato pauses that plagued other interpretations. His voice is magnetic and deep, and his Laertes came across as a powerful, just, and uncorrupted, uncorruptable man.

You know a film has misfired when you root against the title character in favor of a superior secondary performer. With Hawke's final words as the dying Hamlet, I could not help but wonder what this film could have been with Schreiber as the lead. Curious, indeed.

Blogger Diva Kitty's Mom said...

Liev as Hamlet - I'd see that!


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