Hamlet (2000)

*. I’ve always thought the title of this movie should be Hamlet 2000. The year is that important.
*. The reason it’s important is because of the film’s major motif, which is media and communications technology. Cutting edge in 2000, so dated as to be obscure today.
*. There’s a scene that gives a good illustration of how far director Michael Almereyda wants to pursue this angle. After Hamlet has killed Polonius and lugged the old man’s guts from his mother’s bedroom we see him using a payphone in one of the Elsinore Hotel’s hallways, the corpse at his feet. When we cut to this I was wondering what part of the play was coming next and assumed he was calling his uncle to have their big fight. But instead he’s calling his mother and finishing up the previous scene in her bedroom.

*. In other words, there was no point in cutting to the shot of Hamlet with the body in the hallway except to play the rest of the scene on the phone. Why? Because this is a mediated Hamlet. The Ghost first appears on a surveillance camera feed. Ophelia wears a wire to her meeting with Hamlet. The Mousetrap play is a video collage Hamlet, who is an amateur videographer, cuts and puts together on his computer. Several speeches are played as answering machine messages or on speaker phones. Hamlet notifies Claudius of his return to New York by fax, and this is also the means used to send the challenge to the duel. It’s that kind of thing.
*. But like I say, the year 2000 also dates the film because of its heavy use of the technology of that time. Hamlet carries around a camcorder and is apparently shooting everything on tape. The “To be or not to be” speech is delivered while Hamlet is wandering through the aisles of Blockbuster. I know people today who don’t have any idea what Blockbuster, or, for that matter, a fax machine, were. And while phones are used a lot throughout the film, they aren’t cell phones, which had still not been widely adopted. People certainly weren’t filming with them, as they would by the time Almereyda made Cymbeline, when their new functionality would be given an essential plot function.
*. As with most modern updates of Shakespeare a big part of the fun is seeing how they’re going to play famous scenes in a contemporary setting. My favourite here is Hamlet listening in to Claudius’s “confession” while he’s driving Claudius’s limo. I thought that was neat.
*. What was odd about that scene is that we don’t get Hamlet’s “Now might I do it pat” speech, which is the main reason for introducing Claudius’s confession in the first place. It’s a cut that the 1964 Russian version also made and I didn’t understand why they left it out there either. It’s one of the play’s highlights.

*. There are a lot of stars but I have to say they don’t acquit themselves that well. They all sound like they’re fighting their delivery. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Shakespeare performed with so little music in the lines. I suppose they were going for something more natural, but whenever you do that with Shakespeare it just ends up sounding awful.
*. In addition, most of the performances are far too laid back. Liev Schreiber as Laertes seems like he’s been tranquilized. I didn’t understand him at all. Sam Shepard is the most unimposing Ghost ever. Kyle MacLachlan tries to just be smooth. Julia Stiles, who was the Shakespeare “It girl” at the time — she also starred in film adaptation of Othello (O) and The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You) around the same time — is one of the few bright spots, but I didn’t buy her insanity here. It’s a really tough part though.
*. Bill Murray may be the most surprising name in the credits. He plays Polonius, and he doesn’t do very well either. He sounds like he’s working hard just to remember his lines.
*. A bunch of other names have nearly invisible parts. Paul Bartel, in his final role, is Osric. I think they only left him with one line. Jeffrey Wright is the gravedigger, but if you blink you’ll miss him. Really, we only hear him singing for a few seconds. And Casey Affleck is Fortinbras, who is only a face on the news.
*. I read somewhere that Ethan Hawke, who was 29, was the youngest actor to play Hamlet on film. I don’t know if that’s true. He’s basically a hipster Hamlet, very low key and scruffy and self-regarding. And I have to say that his hat really bothered me. I wonder if Ophelia knit it for him.
*. The action is set around Hallowe’en. Which I guess makes sense here, with the idea of ghosts rising up. For some reason Almereyda also played Cymbeline over Hallowe’en. I don’t know what the fascination is, as it doesn’t end up having much significance in either movie.

*. Were the television sets playing images from what look like burning Iraqi oil fields meant to have some deeper meaning? A breakdown of political order, the time out of joint? Just a visual correlative to the “blasts from hell” Hamlet mentions when he first sees the Ghost? I don’t know. I think I got the joke about his wandering through the “Action” aisle at Blockbuster while The Crow: City of Angels plays in the background. But was it that great a joke that they had to build this scene around it?
*. Despite all the liberties taken there isn’t much in the actual interpretation of the play that surprises. I suppose the biggest thing was having Gertrude drink the poison knowingly. But I’m sure even that had been done before by someone.
*. I wanted to like this one more, but it really is a slow-moving mess with no feel for the language and no dramatic highlights. The way the text is cut up and rearranged it’s both hard to follow and difficult to engage with. Was some of this intentional? I certainly never felt any sense of urgency about Hamlet getting his revenge, but maybe the point was that he didn’t either.

9 thoughts on “Hamlet (2000)

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