I was going to use this movie to close the Mixed Reviews series, but the combination of watching the wonderful new Much Ado About Nothing and recent trip to New York (which delayed this post a bit) brought it to mind. Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing are vastly different movies, but they are both “modern-dress” Shakespeare film adaptations with excellent senses of place. However, Much Ado About Nothing has been well-received. Hamlet, on the other hand, has the most mixed reviews of any movie I own, which is why I intended to save it for last. The truth is, it did get good reviews from some prominent sources. Ebert and Roeper liked it. Rolling Stone liked it. The NY Times and LA Times liked it. It’s just that no one else did. It made me wonder how I could have such terrible taste. I understand why some people wouldn’t like it, but that many of them?
Hamlet is the familiar story: The king of Denmark dies and his brother quickly marries his widow and takes the throne. The new king’s nephew, Hamlet gets a visit from his father’s ghost, who tells him to avenge his death. Madness and violence ensue. This version is an indie film originally released in 2000. It takes place in New York City of the same year. The king is the CEO of the Denmark corporation. Hamlet is an untalented filmmaker. Ophelia is a photographer with a penchant for Polaroids.
The Shakespearean dialogue is preserved, which might make it seem like a ripoff of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet. Luhrmann didn’t invent the idea of putting Shakespearean dialogue in an anachronistic film setting; Derek Jarman did it in the 1970s and I’m sure he wasn’t the first either. Still, I think one reason Hamlet garnered so many unfavorable reviews is because there was a trend in the late 1990s for movies to modernize Shakespeare for young audiences. After Romeo and Juliet came the similarly teen-oriented Ten Things I Hate About You, an updated Taming of the Shrew, and O, an updated Othello. (Those movies did not preserve the original dialogue, but they both star Julia Stiles, who plays Ophelia in Hamlet.) So by 2000, Hamlet was more of the same.
What does set Hamlet apart is its emphasis on technology and emotional disconnect. Both old and then-new devices are at the movie’s forefront. Hamlet records his soliloquies with a digital camera. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are put on speakerphone. The “Get thee to a nunnery” speech ends as a series of voicemails. Shakespeare’s words are printed on faxes and typed on laptops. The technology allows the characters to distract themselves while others are trying to communicate with them, so they don’t always listen to each other. It takes desperate circumstances for them to have meaningful interactions.
The technology is part of why Hamlet is an even better movie now that some time has passed since its release, but it’s not the only factor. As played by a 29-year old Ethan Hawke, Hamlet appears to be either in his eleventh year of film school or has spent the last decade trying to find something to do with his life. Either way, he’s not so much mad as he is erratic and immature. (Although the character of Hamlet was written as a 30-year old, it’s been suggested that Shakespeare intended him to be younger and he revised the part to accommodate a famous but aging actor. It’s like what happened with The Wiz.) It works here because Hamlet comes across as the over-privileged product of the 1990s economic boom. You get the sense that he hasn’t had to grow up because he’s been living off a trust fund. Not that’s he’s alone in this regard: other than CEO Claudius (Kyle McLaughlin) and his right-hand man Polonius (Bill Murray), no one has or needs a job. Like Elizabethan royalty, they have a lot of time on their hands for cultivating obsessions. Conversely, there’s a sense of impending doom behind their ennui now that we know they’re situated in pre-9/11, pre-Bernie Madoff New York. It’s like reading Les Liaisones Dangereuses with the knowledge that the French Revolution was about to destroy the same bored bourgeoisie the story depicts.
Of course, I didn’t see any of those things when I first saw Hamlet. I had rented the VHS from the grocery store, so that should tell you how long ago that was. I was a sulky teenager then, and I loved the movie’s angst, its language and its beautifully shot New York City setting. It’s not that my emotional attachment keeps me from seeing the movie’s flaws. Hawke’s a decent Hamlet, but it helps that there’s a strong supporting cast, particularly Liev Schrieber (Laertes) and Sam Shepard (The Ghost). Cutting such a lengthy play to fit a two-hour runtime takes away some of its complexity as well. There are other weaknesses, but I still believe that Hamlet’s strengths supersede them. More importantly, now that I’m an adult, it shouldn’t matter if the cool kids agree with me or not. It shouldn’t, but I’m still hesitant to show Hamlet to anyone else. There’s a 50/50 chance that person will hate it, and I don’t like my odds.