Directed by Michael
That dual feat, I would
submit, is not only an extraordinary achievement, it’s also a source of
mysteries to rival the play’s own. Why is this rendition of an almost too-well-known
play so haunting finally? Are its cerebral fascinations and its affective punch
intrinsically connected, or merely coincidental? Having seen the film a second
time recently–and come away even more enthralled and impressed than I was
the first–I have a few answers to suggest below. But the movie, like the
play, ultimately will elude the net of anyone’s explanations. That’s
part of its cryptic fascinations, and it’s also why I urge you to see,
and judge, for yourself.
My hunch is that Almereyda’s
film will appeal to lot more people than conservative appraisals of its commercial
reach might assume, but it’s certainly not for everyone, and strict guardians
of the text should prepare to have their pacemakers jolted. Though, apart from
a few brief interpolations, Shakespeare’s language is used throughout,
Almereyda’s adaptation takes a free hand in paring away scenes and dialogue
to leave a more spare and suggestive scenario; several celebrated passages–Hamlet’s
instructions to the players, the gravedigger’s speech, and others–are
The play’s initial
sighting of the ghost is likewise absent. The movie’s action begins, after
a brief flurry of prefatory images and dialogue snippets, at a press conference
in a midtown office building where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) brandishes a copy
of USA Today while consolidating his position as the new CEO of the Denmark
Corporation. Also in attendance are Gertrude (Diane Venora), Polonius (Bill
Murray), Laertes (Liev Schreiber) and Ophelia (Julia Stiles). Skulking at the
event’s edges, Hamlet (Hawke), wearing one of those collegiate-chic knitted
Andean caps with the earflaps, looks like he’s ready to hurl a few paving
stones at the WTO.
Instead, he morosely follows
his mom and Claudius onto the sidewalk after the press conference ends, demanding
attention but soon losing them to the protective enclosure of a limousine. The
hero’s wounded subjectivity and passive-aggressive m.o. now firmly established,
the chase, as it were, begins.
A few years back, Baz Luhrmann’s
DiCaprio-starring William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet showed how
to modernize Shakespeare in all the superficial ways: flashy MTV-style camera
angles and cutting, groovy costumes posed against a slew of cheekily doncontextualized
settings, and so forth. It wasn’t a terrible film, just a terribly obvious
(and rather sloppily executed) one. Almereyda’s precise, gravely elegant
modernism has what Luhrmann’s pomo hyperkineticism so glaringly lacked:
a sense of anchoring reality, a place for all the confusion and sorrow to spring
from and recurrently refer back to.
You can’t see a ghost
from inside a fog bank or smoke machine, after all. It takes a more concrete
vantage point, and that’s exactly what Manhattan provides here. The sleek
skyscrapers, the flashes of Times Square at night, the manicured offices and
Ophelia’s funky East Village flat, the thoroughly ordinary hallways and
anonymous rooms, the seashell interior sweep of the Guggenheim–these are
familiar enough to ground the play’s fancies and flights in present-tense
terms that can’t be mistaken. There’s nothing cute about this grounding;
it only makes tragedy more immediate, more palpable.
Yet, paradoxically, that
very solidity delivers us to a place that is highly unstable and oddly ethereal.
Because, in the final analysis, the story only appears to unfold in a rock-solid,
enduring metropolis. It actually happens, and will go on happening, in another
realm entirely. You may think what you’re getting is The Dane in New
York, in other words. But the film’s real unspoken title has
to be Hamlet in the Kingdom of Images.
Indeed, there are images
everywhere in Almereyda’s field of vision: tv’s, news photos, security
monitors, paparazzi, camcorder screens, Pixelvision snippets galore. Hamlet
himself is a tyro cineaste who attempts to catch the king’s conscience
with an only mildly pretentious experimental (cough) short film, rather than
a play. What’s more, Almereyda makes sure we’re given glimpses of
or nods to lots of preceding filmic Hamlets, from Olivier’s to Aki
Kaurismaki’s. Yet all of this merely references the deeper issue; the real
crux, it seems to me, comes in the images of the film itself.
Beautifully shot by John
De Borman, Hamlet has a grainy, textured, coolly restrained look that,
like Godard’s films in the era spanning Sauve qui Peut (la Vie) and
JLG/JLG, will keep returning the attentive viewer not only to the reality
of the setting and the people in front of the camera, but also to the film’s
own photographic reality. This is what really distinguishes Almereyda’s
movie. Every previous Hamlet, good, bad or middling, has used film to
serve the play; this one uses the play to tell us something about film.
In doing so, it posits an
illuminating metaphorical correlation between text and image, Shakespeare/Hamlet’s
reality and our own. To be a cinephile, after all, is to be as obsessed with
ghosts as Hamlet is, and as convinced of their reality, their supramundane truthfulness.
But in Shakespeare’s play the protagonist’s obsession, his conviction,
is a matter of crisis, not solid certainty. The world has lost its old moorings
when Hamlet leaps on its merry-go-round, and in never being absolutely sure
of the ghost’s (his ghost’s or anyone’s) reality, he’s never
truly sure of his own.
So it is, if you will, with
film. There’s not only an inherent uncertainty, unbelievability, to its
images, but it is, now, additionally bedeviled by historical crisis: threatened
with extinction by other technologies, it finds even its future existence in
question. All of which suggests a reading of Almereyda’s Hamlet
that doesn’t apply to any other: the ghost (played by Sam Shepard, a figure
spanning theater and film) stands for cinema itself, which makes of every viewer
a Hamlet, video-enveloped, uncertain yet desperate to retain a connection with
the flickering, overthrown, accusing paternal medium.
That’s a roundabout
way of saying that the facile cleverness that might be imputed to Hawke’s
delivering the "To be or not to be" speech in a Blockbuster Video
store is anything but. It’s incredibly exact. Just as Shakespeare’s
Hamlet is proverbially seen as spanning the worlds of medieval certainty and
modern doubt, so this Hamlet–like any human alive at this moment–bestrides
the epochs of film and video. Where else would you set this scene, except in
a place where cinema is being devoured by its progeny? "To be or not to
be" is, let’s face it, the only real question facing cinema now.
So is that the reason I
found the movie more devastating than any previous Hamlet? Yes and no.
Yes, because all the theoretical and subtextual matters just alluded to do infiltrate
and color everything about the film, from its muted colors to Carter Burwell’s
gorgeously elegiacal score. No, because there are many other intelligent and
keenly imagined aspects of Almereyda’s film that contribute to its impact
and deserve credit on their own.
The acting especially. Al
Pacino’s wonderful Looking for Richard made a great case for Americans
playing Shakespeare in their native accents, and this Hamlet furthers
the cause, showing how plain vernacular rhythms can clear the cobwebs and singsongy
dust off of words that often suffer more from overfamiliarity than archaism.
Stiles and MacLachlan I think are amazingly close to perfect in this respect.
Schreiber and Murray are a bit more self-conscious in their speech, yet their
iconic suitability more than compensates for that.
As for Hawke, I must admit
that in the first few scenes I found his slacker fuzziness and low-impact verbal
approach oddly out of key with the measured gravity of Almereyda’s staging,
and with the other actors. Later, I wondered if all this was deliberate, a recognition
that Hamlet is indeed unfocused and largely unknown to himself until the story,
and the angry image of a father he barely knew, forces self-definition on him.
In any case, Hawke’s performance won me over as it progressed, to the point
where it came to feel seamless with Almereyda’s vision of the character.
Hamlet is a play
that turns on mismatched excesses of thought and feeling. There are few films
nowadays that deploy those same qualities–method and sentiment,
in Godard’s terms–meaningfully, or juxtapose them so purposefully.
Almereyda’s movie is the rare work that honors Shakespeare’s creation
by extending its meaning and its painful beauties. It is not the final word
on Hamlet because no rendition can be. But you will have a hard time
exhausting its implications or shaking its captivating spell; it is that rich
and strange, that full of affective intelligence.
One image that particularly
stayed with me afterward was the face of Karl Geary as Horatio, the friend who
shows Hamlet his father’s ghost and later cradles him as he dies. Though
the model of comradely support, Geary’s thin, pale, very modern visage
appears constantly stricken. No wonder. He has seen a ghost. But his look also
captures the film itself: haunted, and haunting.