Set play on film

5th January 2001 at 00:00
HAMLET (12). Directed by Michael Almereyda. (111 minutes)

Hamlet in a woolly hat in Manhattan in the year 2000 mutters "To be or not to be" in a video store. His stepfather is the smoothie head of Denmark Corp and his mother is a glamorous power-wife. Ophelia is a kid in trainers and bunches, developing films in her darkroom. Is nothing sacred?

Shakespeare shouldn't be, needn't be, because Shakespeare can survive almost any treatment. And Hamlet, like no other play, so expresses the human condition that it can be regularly reinterpreted without damage. Besides, for newcomers to the text, surprise is an advantage.

The first surprise in this case is that you are in and out in less than two hours. Students who have been shown videos may be familiar with the Branagh four-hour marathon or possibly Mel Gibson's medieval hero containing his anger with difficulty and dreaming of a Braveheart future. Branagh's film has the complete text, down to the last syllable, the setting is sumptuous, and every bit part is played by a Famous Person. He chose to translate a play into film by emphasising cinema's ability to envelope spectators and stun them with lavish effects and a sense of space.

Almereyda has taken a different path, one probably more attractive to the young film-goer. The setting is vast - the skyscrapers, fashionable apartments and stretch limos o sickeningly rich corporate America - but the shots are often closely focused. You do not lose the sense that much of the drama goes on inside the head of Hamlet (played by Ethan Hawke). His favourite means of expressing himself is via his laptop, one of the ubiquitous manifestations of communication (and spying) by technology. The play-within-the-play becomes a video. Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is wired up for her interview with Hamlet (which makes perfect sense) and she scatters Polaroid prints instead of wildflowers in her madness.

Without a religious context, the Ghost's purpose is blunted and Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius (a slimy Kyle MacLachlan) "at prayer" loses its force when "Now might I do It pat..." is simply cut. No Players, minimal gravedigging and a bloody denouement complete the contemporary feel.

Hawke is somewhat callow, his disaffection closely related to commonplace youthful angst - he is played much younger than 30 - but he has intelligence, sensitivity and passion.

Nothing can compare with an outstanding stage performance by Mark Rylance or Paul Rhys, but this is a gripping, truly filmic version of Hamlet, recommended for students who will be studying the full text. What is this, after all, but an extended exercise in relating characters to new readers such as the best teachers of Shakespeare regularly employ?


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