In the Year 2000
It is the year 2000, and Denmark is a corporation based in New York City. Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a film student, is bitter and suspicious about the quick marriage between his widowed mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) and his creepy uncle (and new CEO of Denmark Corp.), Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). A visit from his father’s ghost confirms Hamlet’s suspicions that the death was not natural and that Uncle Claudius is to blame. Thus begins writer-director Michael Almereyda’s intriguing idea for an updated Hamlet.
Almereyda gives us a New York that is recognizably current (with its taxi-cabs and limos, skyscrapers and Blockbusters Video stores, computers and fax machines), and yet imbues it with a futuristic aura as well, making it glossy and sterile, with sleek chrome and glass and stark black and white. This play between present and future makes me think of the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show’s “In the Year 2000” skits, in this way: despite its obvious immediacy, there is something psychologically removed about this millennial year and its technology (which we fear may turn against us). Hamlet unfolds in just such a borderline time/place, where everything is recognizable, but oddly removed from everyday (“Time is out of joint,” says Hamlet). It seems like a sci-fi-ish “not too distant future” setting and the fact that everyone speaks in Elizabethan English only adds to this effect we know the individual words, yet put together in this way, they sound slightly foreign to our ears.
The mechanics of the story also unfold using these current/futuristic devices: the ghost of Hamlet’s father is first spied via a security monitor; messages are dispatched via fax or on computer disk; Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is “wired” during one of her conversations with Hamlet, so that Claudius and Polonius (Bill Murray) can eavesdrop; Hamlet often speaks in a voice-over or directly to the video camera that he is rarely without. Sometimes we see the results of these “video diaries” as he rewatches them on his monitor his own Real World confessional. These are all smart moves how could a contemporary Hamlet be anything but a film student? And in a story so focused on both Hamlet’s obsession with abuse of power and with surveillance in general, highlighting the technology that allows such intrusive and surreptitious monitoring is a good idea.
Unfortunately, this promising start doesn’t make up for the film’s many problems. Surely any director doing Hamlet must face the dilemma of how to restage the speeches in innovative ways some of the language is so well known that this task can seem impossible. But the answer is not to make the words unimportant. The story of Hamlet is not original to Shakespeare. His contribution was to tell it in a way in which language was central and important words matter. If you are going to overlook the language, you might as well tell another revenge story. Shakespeare’s language can be hard to follow because it has a different rhythm and imagery, and is more complex, than what modern movie audiences are used to. Good delivery is the key to understanding, and it can be done. Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet is another retelling of Shakespeare which uses contemporary visual aesthetics, yet still stresses the importance of the language, and it’s readily understandable. Hamlet, by contrast, is often unintelligible. And the worst offender, unfortunately, is Ethan Hawke. He doesn’t sound as if he comprehends much of his own speeches, and I didn’t have an easy time either, especially since he mumbles his way through almost all of his lines, as if that were the only way he can signify that he’s bummed out. While some of the actors’ speech is natural and easy to follow (Karl Geary, as Horatio, is particularly good, as is Venora), most of the film (and its audience) suffers from many of the actors’ poor articulation.
The film also suffers from too much of a good thing. As I said, I like the premise, but at times the movie seems to be an excuse to show off how the filmmakers have updated the text. It made me think that someone had a few cool ideas (like making the play within a play into a film within a film, which is a pretty cool idea) and then built a production around them. But the results are uneven and the ideas don’t come together into something larger. Having Hamlet recite the famous “To be or not to be” (which you might call the epitome of inaction) while wandering down the “Action” aisle at Blockbusters Video is too “clever” to be clever. And why was the male minor character Marcellus transformed into the female Marcella (Paula Malcomson)? She appears several times during the film, though always with Horatio (is she his girlfriend? Who knows?) Yet, Marcella remains noticeably mute in these scenes. Is the film making a point about the marginalization of the women in and around Denmark?
This plot-tease (will she speak?) is distracting, especially when we have other female characters like Ophelia (Julia Stiles) and Gertrude, both of whom going through their own plights (they die horribly, and by their own hands) and whose stories could have been explored more. I think it might have been worth an extra couple of minutes in this short film (112 minutes) to delve more deeply into Gertrude’s culpability and denial and into Hamlet and Ophelia’s past relationship and sexuality. The play offers ample opportunities and is open to many interpretations, but Almereyda doesn’t reach for them. He misses other opportunities: Almereyda smartly has Hamlet almost summoning the dead by watching videos of his father and Ophelia a nice updating of Hamlet’s visions in his “mind’s eye.” But it might have been useful to add proof, perhaps via video flashbacks, that Hamlet was a likable guy before he was infected with the “rot” in Denmark. Hamlet, when we meet him, is supposed to be melancholy and indecisive (which Hawke plays as annoying, moody and brooding), but we are also supposed to believe that he was once different. However, I didn’t believe that, so his death wasn’t a tragedy.
All of which is not to say that this should have been a full-length version of Hamlet. The complete play is well over four hours long. Believe me, I would be the first (if there weren’t so many others) to say, “Please, feel free to cut and paste.” But Almereyda’s Hamlet is just a superficial treatment, uncomplicated and often unfathomable. For instance, the final duel between Hamlet and Laertes (Liev Schreiber) is silly (as a duel seems neither current nor futuristic) and anti-climactic. It actually makes little sense in the context of the movie, because they abandon it partway through when Laertes produces a gun there is no poison-tipped sword, and no fatal cuts. Why is it here? All this leads me to wonder to whom this Hamlet might appeal. Those who are relatively new to the play will have a really hard time following anything but what they already probably know, and what is most obvious. And yet, it doesn’t appear to be made for people who know the play well, because it excises so much of it and I don’t just mean dialogue, but explorations of the characters and relationships. The main characters are thinly drawn, but the supporting cast is even less detailed. For instance, more attention to the Fortinbras subplot might add to our grasp of Hamlet’s deliberations.
It is an interesting challenge to try to combine the needs of today’s visually-oriented audience with the restraints of a 400-year-old text written for an aurally-oriented audience. Hamlet says, “The play is the thing” that is to say, watching a drama play out can be important and life-transforming. If a new contribution to cinematic Shakespeare doesn’t show relevance for or add insight to a contemporary audience’s understanding, then it can feel like a waste of time. Here the loss feels more tragic, because this Hamlet began with such promise.