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Michael Almereyda's Hamlet: Who's There?

Call the Plumber for An Electrical Upgrade

Click here if you only want to read our Pocket Review below.

It's taken a while for this review to surface--largely because I've been searching my soul for something nice to say about Michael Almereyda's Hamlet. Not to malign the effort--hey, I can almost always use another Hamlet. But if you subscribe to Kenneth Branagh's theory, you need a good excuse to do another one. You need a vision, and it's go to be passionate. (And yes, even a passionately passive Hamet would count.)

Almereyda had a good idea, methinks, in taking Hamlet to New York on screen. Film establishes a locale like that so specifically, though, that you're going to need more than that as your "special take" on this well-known play. It didn't bode well that I was rooting for the director during the movie. What are you going to do with New York? What are you going to say?

My mind would have been taken off the lack of vision if Ethan Hawke had grabbed me by the lapels, or dissed me, like a New Yorker should. I know Hamlet's a slacker, here, but that leaves him much less interesting than even a mental patient. Though the film and Hamlet might have been full of "attitude" (of which there was an abundance in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet), strangely, I didn't get much.

As a substitute for vision, the director gave us a kind of clever spin in the aisles of a Blockbuster Video store for "To be or not to be." Points for that. This may be a bit hard, but if that scene had been half as long, it would have been even more tasty. The idea, and the initial cleverness wears off when Hawke keeps going in the same monotone of voice, in the same manner of walking, and the device of setting, very thought-provoking, quickly tires. I just didn't get any Shax juices flowing watching Hawke, and that's too bad.

The killing of the freshness of a scene by holding it too long or repeating it is accomplished later, as well, when Ophelia plunges into a pool. It's a great idea--and I liked the way it was shot. It nicely forshadows her drowning suicide. But then, the director shows us variations again. Why? Since the outright vision wasn't clearly defined, better editorial decisions in post production might have made this a cripser, clearer film. As it is, the film had trouble leaving any impact.

The rest of Hawke's time on screen isn't much different than the Blockbuster scene. I just wish he'd either practised a bit more--or a bit less, perhaps. It seemed like non-acting for more than most of the time--and he's said as much, I later discovered, in interviews. ("[A young actor] doesn't need to act a lot of that. It just is." A comment like that from him confirms my assessment of his performance as singularly undistinguished. (How's that for a sound bite--and an oxymoron.)

I don't feel I'm being unfairly demanding in my assessment of Hawke on screen, since I've just seen Ralph Fiennes in two dimensions doing his Hamlet at the Belasco Theatre. Granted it's a stage play, and he's one of the Fiennest Shax master actors among his peers. So it is apples and oranges. But Hawke doesn't know how to come off the screen in this role, and Almereyda left him there to be hoist with his own petard.

The thing I remember most about this Hamlet--seen, now, many weeks ago as I complete this review--is the yellow rubber duck. In other scenes, I was looking around the apartment, to see what messages the director might have hidden there. Certiain books? Clues as to character? At no time, save the Blockbuster scene (and the duel, somewhat) was I engaged in the words being delivered or exchanged. It's odd that with all the emphasis on hi-tech paraphernalia, there was no electricity being generated. And it turned out I could turn up nothing in the wiring.

A note on the casting of Bill Murray as Polonious--actor and director might have jumped at the chance, but it made me want to follow Ophelia.

Not even this film, though , can keep me from looking forward to the next Hamlet on film, whatever, and whenever that may be.

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The following Pocket Review contains no spoilers, if you haven't seen the film yet.

The Pocket Review

Modern in setting, the film is strangely placid, lacking the energy to carry Almereyda's good idea to any sort of fruition or conclusion. It's different, at least for Hamlets on film, though this style has been used in theatre, and is already passe. Don't listen too intently, rather let New York try and do what Hawke doesn't.

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For an article on the Almereyda Hamlet from the New York Times, click here

For the Hamlet page, click here.

For a review of Ralph Fiennes on stage, including Hamlet, click here.

For Shakespeare in Performance, click here.

For Shakespeare on film, click here.

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