Hamlet takes Manhattan

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There’s a scene early in Michael Almereyda’s film adaptation of Hamlet in which Polonius is talking to his son Laertes who is about to depart for university in France.  As Polonius (played masterfully by Bill Murray) gives his son a stream of well-intentioned advice (all taken word-for-word from Shakespeare’s original text), he slips a thick roll of cash into the pocket of Laertes’ jean jacket without his son noticing.  This detail is present nowhere in Shakespeare’s stage directions but is Michael Almereyda’s own interpolation as a director.  It is a masterful touch, and the film has many of them.  It feels real; it feels alive.  There are far too many stage and film productions of Shakespeare in which a group of actors simply recite lines to each other.  Almereyda’s Hamlet, filmed in 2000 and set largely in contemporary New York City (while retaining the dialogue from Shakespeare’s original text), feels like it is populated by genuine people for whom it is perfectly natural to speak in iambic pentameter while slipping money into their child’s coat pocket.

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Polonius (Bill Murray, left) lectures his son Laertes (Liev Schreiber, right) on the importance of being true to oneself on the eve of Laertes’ departure for France.

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Hamlet (Ethan Hawke, left) is furious that his mother Gertrude (Diane Verona) has married his uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan, right) a mere month after the death of his beloved father, the former CEO and “King” of Denmark Corporation.

Adapting Shakespeare to a contemporary setting requires some tinkering with the storyline, so in Almereyda’s film Claudius is the new CEO (although everyone calls him “King” as a colloquialism) of the Denmark Corporation, based in Manhattan.  His nephew Hamlet is a young filmmaker (who creates not a play-within-the-play, but a film-within-the-film) mourning the loss of his beloved father (who, of course, Claudius murdered), the Denmark Corporation’s former boss.  It’s a story of the idle rich, a group of characters who, while largely sympathetic, would not be out of place on the cast of one of those trashy reality TV shows–Real Housewives of Manhattan, or Keeping Up with Claudius or something along those lines.

I have always loved the story of Hamlet.  As I’ve told my students on many occasions, Hamlet is, essentially, a soap opera, but one grounded in profound ideas and stripped of melodrama, expressed through characters who, while to some extent stereotyped (the evil stepfather, the innocent damsel, the young prince) completely transcend their stock roles and become some of the most fascinating and complex human beings ever seen on stage or screen.  A film like Almereyda’s, while retaining the all-important text yet marrying the power of its timeless plot with a late 90’s grunge aesthetic, is a marvellously effective teaching tool for bringing the story alive for students.

It is worth remembering that for all its emphasis on revenge, Hamlet is also a love story, albeit a dark and tragic one.  This is one thing about Almereyda’s film that is especially effective.  Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, has incredible chemistry with Ethan Hawke and it’s heart-breakingly easy to believe that these two characters desperately love one another.  (By contrast, although I love Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film, watching it I can’t quite believe that Mel Gibson’s Hamlet and Helena-Bonham Carter’s Ophelia had ever been in love.)

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Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles have remarkable chemistry as Hamlet and Ophelia.

Of course, Almereyda’s film isn’t perfect.  One director’s decision that I find hard to forgive is the absence of a gravedigger scene.  As anyone who has studied the play knows, Hamlet’s conversation with the gravedigger and his subsequent fascination with the skull of the king’s jester, the long-dead Yorick, is the play’s defining visual image, an iconic representation of the mortality of all human beings.
HamletSkullHCSealousYet this crucial scene is absent here, though Almereyda gives us a frustrating tease of what might have been; just before Hamlet and Horatio arrive at Ophelia’s funeral, they actually see a man digging a fresh grave in the cemetery, yet they pass by him without a word.  This is the one point in the film that I wanted to grab Michael Almereyda by the collar and ask him, “Michael, what were you thinking? The most iconic image in all of literature and you didn’t include it?”

Yet the film is so good in other respects that I can forgive this omission (well, almost, at least).  You have to admire the boldness of a director who has Hamlet hide out in a Laundromat after killing Polonius, and sets the famous to be or not to be soliloquy in a video store.

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Hamlet wanders the aisles of a Blockbuster video store thinking about whether or not to commit suicide–the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy.

In the end, I think the magic of Hamlet is that all of humanity’s ideals are examined in minute detail: love and hate, life and death, justice and revenge, God and the gods, and the maddeningly ambiguous idea of purpose or destiny, the eternal question of what life is all about.  In one of the play’s most memorable lines (delivered with great effectiveness by Ethan Hawke), Hamlet muses, “Time is out of joint; oh cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right.” Whether Hamlet really was “born” to seek revenge–whether or not he has any meaningful choice in the matter–is largely irrelevant, because he believes that he was born to it.  The power of his belief propels him onward to destruction, yet the sinister Claudius comes down with him.  As the contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton said of Hamlet, “Hamlet loses, but he isn’t a loser.”  Not a bad epitaph, I think.

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