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.
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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
Nice try, but not the words don't all come trippingly from all the actors' tongues.
Here is the first film version of Hamlet to come along in modern New York. The director's use of New York is fun to watch for this native New Yorker, although how a limo can quickly move from 42nd St. between Broadway and Eighth Avenue to 48th St. and Sixth Avenue is beyond me.
But asisde from that, all we care about when we see Hamlet is how is the text handled, by both the director and the cast. The director, Michael Almereyda, has cut into the script and most of the film runs surprising lean for something that runs one hour, fifty-three minutes. His use of short films in the background, speaker phones, TV's and the like run the gambit from ingeneous to "Give me a BREAK!"
The casting however is inconsitent, for which we can certainly blame the director. Ethan Hawke, in the title role, has drive and energy. But if anybody remembers the TV show "The Critic", when they had Keanu Reeves doing Hamlet, then you know what I'm thinking. The words "Dude" and "Whoa" seems ready to break into Hawke's speeches at anytime. The complexity is replaced by a whiny "I'm in pain, but I'm cool" attitude for the bulk of the film and it doesn't really work. The mumbling of at least a fourth of his lines doesn't help either. He works better in silence, brooding.
The silence works even better for Julia Styles as Ophelia. When quiet, the pain of abandonment and loss is heartfelt. Then she opens her mouth, and the lack of a developed character as well as an appalling lack of command of Shakespeare's words is obvious. Ophelia, never mind getting thee to a nunnery, get thee "Beverly Hills, 90210", GO!
Bill Murray veers form earnestness to his Lounge Singer's act from "SNL" when doing Polonius. I know the role was suppose to be for comic relief. But after a while, everything Murray says is funny- intenionally or otherwise.
Kyle McLaughlin, as Claudius, doesn't fare much better. There is little distinction in his line readings, and in the end, he just comes off as a one-trick pony. Diane Verona is marginally better as Gertrude. The attitude is there, as is the pain, but her line readings lack a freshness to them.
The standouts are Sam Sheppard as the Ghost, Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman as Rosencrnatz & Guildenstern, and especially Liev Schrieber as Laertes. Schrieber in paricularly as the energy, clearity, and believabilty that makes you wonder what if he played Hamlet instead of Schrieber. We probably would have had a better movie.
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