Being a rather stodgy curmudgeon (that is, of conservative temperament) I normally prefer traditional productions of Shakespeare to modernizations, but this modernized version of Hamlet is one of my favourite Shakespearean film adaptations, and is certainly my favourite film version of this play. (The only other versions that I have seen, mind you, are Branagh’s and Zeffirelli’s.) It is a sleek, brisk telling of the story, clocking in comfortably under two hours, but it makes a remarkably strong impression, even considering its rather subdued tonal palette.
First, the gimmick: this Hamlet is not Prince of Denmark, but of Denmark Corporation, and Claudius is not king, but CEO. The whole film is set amid the glass-and-steel towers of a modern urban core; closed circuit cameras allow characters to watch one another; messages are dispatched through fax machines; Hamlet goes to England on an airplane; and, in a memorable sequence, he recites the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy while wandering up and down the aisles at a Blockbuster video store.
Director Michael Almereyda justifies the peculiar setting by doing some interesting things with it. Most obviously, he saturates Hamlet’s environment with images of himself — in mirrors, reflective glass windows, video cameras — which is a nice visual means of illustrating, and even augmenting, his morbid self-reflection. The cold, inhuman landscape of office towers has an alien, and alienating, feel to it, which contributes something fitting to the mood of the play.
The cast is pretty good. Bill Murray, as Polonius, lets me down a little; I always think of Richard Briers in this role (from Branagh’s film), and Murray lacks something in comparison. Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles, as Laertes and Ophelia, are very good. Pity the actor who has to play the prince, but Ethan Hawke is good for the role: he can, at the least, tell a hawke from a handsawe. He plays the role with a ruminative quality somewhere between apathy and stunned insensibility; several of his soliloquies are delivered as quiet, half-mumbled voice-overs. In his performance (and actually this is characteristic of the film as a whole) the emotional outbursts are kept to a minimum, adding extra punch to those that do happen. Overall, Hawke’s Hamlet comes across as something like a disaffected fledgling intellectual, ready with facile rejoinders and distracting syllogisms, and weary of the world. This is a legitimate interpretation; Hamlet is a university student, after all. Mercifully, there is little attempt in this film to honour the ‘Oedipal Hamlet’ theory.
The short playing time means that, inevitably, a considerable amount of material has been cut. Most serious is the deletion of the grave-digger scene (we are compensated, wittily but insufficiently, by a brief shot of a grave-digger gaily singing Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”); the associated scene of Ophelia’s burial is correspondingly much modified. The riskiest interpretive decision made by Almereyda is surely his having Gertrude intentionally drink the poison at play’s end; her motivation for doing so is, I confess, quite unclear to me.
For the most part, however, the screenplay does justice to each of the central characters and to the play itself. This film had a limited theatrical release, earning only about two million dollars at the box office, so I believe that many people will not have seen it. If you enjoy Shakespeare on film, I recommend this adaptation; I am not aware of many that are better.