The RSC puts a modern spin on Shakespeare's Hamlet in this filmed-for-television version of their stage production. The Prince of Denmark seeks vengeance after his father is murdered and his mother marries the murderer.
New York, 2000. A specter in the guise of the newly-dead CEO of Denmark Corporation appears to Hamlet, tells of murder most foul, demands revenge, and identifies the killer as Claudius, the new head of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle and now step-father. Hamlet must determine if the ghost is truly his father, and if Claudius did the deed. To buy time, Hamlet feigns madness; to catch his uncle's conscience, he invites him to watch a film he's made that shows a tale of murder. Finally convinced of Claudius's guilt, Hamlet must avenge his father. Claudius now knows Hamlet is a threat and even uses Ophelia, Hamlet's love, in his own plots against the young man. Murder will out? Written by
There are some who would require the plot and drama: a son whose inheritance is interrupted, so who may be imagining the murder of his father; a vapid, doting, hedonistic mother; a loyal, by the book counselor, his earnest son and brilliant daughter, she smitten by the prince. A scheming king -- wheels turn and everyone dies.
Some would consider the language the essential element. This is the poet's most convoluted, and heavily annotated metaphoric fabric. Shakespeare is most often celebrated for his layering and interelating of mental images, and certainly this work is his most globally elaborate (sorry).
But just as the language rides on the drama, the ideas of the play ride on the metaphors. These ideas are life-altering in their starkness: Reality, thought, creation, intent, the cause and validity of unnatural action, relationships among cocreated internal worlds. Much of this is developed in frightening and challenging terms. To my tastes, the ideas are what is important. Too many Hamlets (notably Olivier's)faithfully include the first two and never touch the third. I'd buy a complete abandonment of the first, but cannot see how one could get to the third without most of the second.
Now. This film. They have preserved the plot well enough for a film, I suppose. And they have kept the language, about one third of it anyway.
Bill Murray is lost in Polonius, utterly lost. The production quality is poor -- that fits the film school motif (see below), but there is no excuse for the many boom mikes sticking down. They repurposed so much to fit the new setting, so why stick with swords at the end?
The biggest complaint is that they missed all the ideas, the big ones. The central example is at the end of the first act, where Hamlet says: `there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' Hamlet, and Horatio are students of Wittenburg philosophy, which audiences would have understood as that of the magi Giordano Bruno, martyred by the Pope. (His book is the one Hamlet quotes when asked `what is the matter?,' and Bruno is also quoted in the northnorthwest and hawk from a handsaw lines.) The play has much to do with understanding Bruno's questions of thought and action. When Hamlet differentiates himself from Horatio, the play really starts. In this film, though, the `your' becomes `our.' Why?
This Ophelia is wonderful. I don't know her other work yet, but it includes two other Shakespeare adaptations. She certainly was helped by the woman director, who amplifies the female roles in emotion if not screentime. She even transforms Marcello into a Marcella, Horatio's girlfriend. Rather nice. Also well done is the staging of the Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern dialog.
The central device of the film is rather clever, if not original. The play is deeply self-referential. All the rich text about introspection is what is usually cut in the name of modern impatience, and that is the case here. Also gone here is the sharply self-referential scenes of Hamlet lecturing the players. What we have in its place is self-reference about film, and filming. Hamlet and Horatio, indeed R&G and Marcella are all film students. He thinks in film (actually video), and all his ruminations are cast in visual terms, often in the context of video, even a Blockbuster store. The final chorus is in video, and much of the action is seen through surveillance cameras. The play-within-the-play is a homemade video, with clear film-school effects.
This is not as clever as it could have been in the hands of a master. (Or when the goals are exceedingly simple as in `American Beauty.') But it is an honest attempt to cast the reflexive depth of the play in cinematic terms.
Sam Shepard is the best King Hamlet's ghost I have ever seen. He is a solid blessing.
This is a respectable effort, and deserves to be viewed if not celebrated.
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