37. Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000)
When it comes to presenting Shakespeare well on film, sometimes it just isn’t enough to be a pretentious twat.
Baz Luhrman has proven that once, and Michael Almereyda has proven that twice, the first time with Hamlet.
This Hamlet stars a really goofy knit-cap. Underneath it, unfortunately for this movie, was Ethan Hawke’s facial stubble. Even more unfortunately, Ethan Hawke was underneath all that.
Clearly, this is one of those Hamlets where you’ll have to try to watch around the idiot playing Hamlet.
On paper, I should love this postmodern film, which sets Hamlet in New York City, in 2000, in a corporate context: Denmark is a Corporation, run by Hamlet’s uncle and his mother. The family lives in the Elsinore Hotel. Hamlet is a film student, and there is a meta-cinematic dimension to the way this Hamlet is imagined. There is so much potential in these choices.
The rhetoric of Claudius’s speech to Denmark works perfectly in a PR-saturated corporate world.
And Kyle MacLachlan’s Claudius seems grandiose in addressing Bill Murray’s thoughtful Polonius,
and Liev Schreiber’s lucid, powerful Laertes.
And then the scene moves to Hamlet.
Ethan Hawke acts with the intensity of a Fruit Roll Up being peeled from plastic.
Kyle MacLachlin, who I adore, will by the end of the movie seem bewildered to find himself outside of a David Lynch universe. By the final act, his Claudius mostly seems shell-shocked. I could try to rationalize this as a valid aesthetic choice. Claudius is in shock that his impulsive plan (to kill his brother, to marry his sister-in-law, who he had secretly been in love with while his brother was alive, and gain the CEO-ship of Denmark) actually worked, but has actually brought him little satisfaction.
But so many of the actors look dulled with shock in this movie, or like they are trying to act their way out of a Quaalude haze. Or like they are trying to act with Ethan Hawke.
Sam Shepard, another interesting casting choice, theoretically speaking (a Postmodern playwright acting in Shakespeare), plays the ghost of the father of Hamlet, but not persuasively. But we rely on Hamlet to let us know how frightening the ghost is, and Ethan Hawke forgot to wear his knit cap in that scene. Sam Sheperd as King Hamlet’s ghost is an opportunity squandered.
In time, with their contact with Hawke, almost everyone seems to be on the same soporific downers in this film.
Diane Venora portrays Gertrude as a bored socialite. Fine. Sure.
If only the play were called Polonius. Or Laertes. Or Ophelia.
Julia Stiles does well as Ophelia, conveying a sense of vulnerability and sensitivity and … peculiar timing. Her Ophelia is struggling to have an identity. She looks nearly as pristine as a doll.
She is being systematically crushed by the characters of Hamlet. Stiles clearly know what her lines mean, and she has to act with the affectless non-acting and occasional ham-acting of Ethan Hawke.
Besides Hamlet, Ophelia is the other virtuoso role in the play. Odd how Julia Stiles generally emotes well, yet her character has every cause for the stilted, affectless mode of most of the cast, since she is the recipient of so many gazes in this film, and is viewed at times as an outright art object by Hamlet.
That is how Michael Almereyda seems to view humanity, though: not as a collection of human psyches and spirits, but as art objects for him to film doing Shakespeary things.
This Hamlet loves to watch his film footage from film school and other media, and all of it comes off as self-indulgent rubbish, like Hamlet is casually thinking of the movie he would like to make out of the poetry of his soliloquies. In other words, Almereyda interrupts his bad film of Hamlet to show us even more abysmal, shittier films. Such meta-cinematic play requires brilliance, and this film, alas and fuck, is not brilliant.
But clearly Almereyda and Hawke are convinced that they are.
John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.