William Shakespeare’s work endures in large part because his plays can be infinitely reinterpreted. Just look at Michael Almereyda’s take on Hamlet as a rumination on millennial angst. Here, Hamlet is stripped bare of his iconic power and shown to be a petulant, self-indulgent and extremely troubled young man, one whose psyche is as fragmentary as the technology he manipulates with cut-and-paste profundity.
Ethan Hawke has that look of a man-child who’s skated by too long on his boyish charms. He’s a sullen wreck throughout Hamlet, a soul tortured not just by the death of his father (a wraithlike Sam Shepard), and the nearly instantaneous (and carnally charged) remarriage of his mother Gertude (Diane Venora) to his uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), but his own unfulfilled promise. Adrift and directionless, Hamlet is a Peter Pan continually postponing adult responsibilities, making time with the impressionable teenager Ophelia (Julia Stiles) – who’s quick to worship his pretentious brooding – while diving headfirst into his own navel.
Almereyda (Nadja, Twister) has gone even further in reconceptualizing Hamlet. He sets the story in contemporary New York City and uses that city’s complex contradictions to play out the tale. Realizing that business powerbrokers are the royalty of the new world, he transforms Shakespeare’s kingdom into the Denmark Corporation, whose epic machinations are played out before a hungry media.
But the most striking aspect of this Hamlet is that it’s wired. Not just in the digital sense (making excellent use of the high-tech gadgetry which has invaded our everyday lives), but in the way it maintains an almost electric atmosphere of portent, as if the energy of the place itself drives the protagonists to inevitable tragedy.
While trimming the play down to its juicy marrow, Almereyda maintains Shakespeare’s glorious language, which each actor personalizes. (The increasingly impressive Bill Murray is a marvelous Polonius, who seems to draw power from his own weaknesses.)
As Hamlet works through his famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, he wanders through the aisles of Blockbuster Video where signs scream, "Action! Action!" He ultimately takes that advice to heart instead of heeding the store’s corporate slogan: Go home happy.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].