This is an essay I wrote for a course called A Survey Of Drama

Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet

 

Director/screenwriter Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of the most well known of Shakespeare’s plays, set in New York near the eve of the millennium, teems with excellent performances from the majority of its cast, unforgettable imagery as well as an emotive but unintrusive score by Carter Burwell, and despite missed opportunities to make its characters more complex due to the excision of a lot of dialogue from the play, as well as an underwhelming ending, the film always makes for truly compelling viewing.

The setting change to New York in 2000 is well suited for two reasons. Firstly, because the city itself is steeped in violent, criminal lore, from gangster Lucky Luciano’s reign during the 1930’s to the much more sinister terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, thereby making a believable location where the play’s blood-soaked ending could happen. Secondly, the ominous tone in the text matches the overall sentiment rampant throughout the world as the turn of the millennium awaited, and for that reason writer/director Almereyda purposely set the action in the latter half of the year, around Halloween. Unfortunately he occasionally seems self-satisfied with the difference in location and struts out contemporary images at will as if to show the viewer how original the change he came up with is and distract our attention from the strength of his source: Shakespeare’s characters. For instance the opening sequence, including shots of Denmark Corporation’s advertising and the Hotel Elsinore, is a good introductory visual primer for where the action takes place but Almereyda overdoes himself with the contemporary details by interrupting one of Hamlet’s speeches, shown in a home video montage, with a cellphone call, and then allowing Ethan Hawke, who portrays the title character, to continue the speech, essentially showing the break to be wholly unnecessary. Thankfully Almereyda’s actors, for the most part, redeem his sporadic stylistic overindulgence with nuanced readings of Shakespeare’s complex dialogue, and Hawke in particular, seen in nearly every frame of the film, acts as the director’s greatest asset.

Hamlet, a digital video reporter, disgustedly takes attention away from the King and Queen’s self-congratulatory press conference marking their marriage and Claudius’ takeover of his brother’s company by stopping filming as well as making eyes at Ophelia, tacitly forbidden by Laertes and Polonius. He shows his emotions clearer outdoors with the “I know not ‘seems'” (I.ii.76) passage, but Hawke does not convey the anger he should when asked why his father’s death is so personal to him, by his mother no less, played by Diane Venora. Claudius (Kyle McClachlan), however, is more easily defined in terms of his emotions, grabbing Hamlet’s arm in an undoubtedly confrontational manner during “’tis unmanly grief” (94). The King and Queen are portrayed throughout, correctly in terms of what the text calls for, as foolishly oblivious to Hamlet’s opinions of them, enjoying each other sexually while missing all the other emotion exploding around them. They compound their mistake by hiring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played as two drunken club-goers by Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman, who are hardly believable as pals of an introverted scholar like Hamlet, to deduce from Hamlet’s possessed rants what they are clearly not smart enough to do if they are unable to even conceal their true purpose for re-entering Hawke’s life after what is portrayed as a long time.

Hawke’s initial channeling of Hamlet as a still-grieving, self-loathing individual appears during the first soliloquy, told in a flat, depressed voice, even through the lines “how weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/seem to me all the uses of this world” (133-134) and “most wicked speed, to post/with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (156-157), but his voice rises at times to point to an accurate portrayal of an individual who hasn’t made up his mind as to how he can reconcile the conflicting feelings of anger and sadness. The process of this resolution is then sped up by Horatio’s astonishing tale of seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost wandering the hotel floors and the ghost’s later demand of his son to “revenge my foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.25), and though Hawke’s readings in this scene are mostly packed with meaning, Karl Geary, in playing Horatio, plows through his lines in an emotionless voice and without the appropriate pauses, seeming to have little to no thought about what the words ask of him.

By contrast, Liev Schreiber’s Laertes seems to weigh the importance of every word he utters, as his “perhaps he loves you now…” (I.iii.14-44) speech demands in the next scene of the film, especially when saying the “your chaste treasure open/to his unmastered importunity…” (31-31) line with extreme caution so as not to offend Ophelia (Julia Stiles). Stiles’ little sister offers much facial expression and fidgeting, playing Ophelia as a predictable teen with a short attention span, and the latter parts of the scene make it one of the film’s most effectively passionate, Bill Murray adding profound thought to Polonius’ doting advice to his son. Schreiber’s goodbyes are so heartfelt they ominously reminded me this would be the last time Laertes sees his father alive and his sister sane, and the actors’ skillful playing off of each other’s differing emotions left a lump in this critic’s throat.

Passions running high continue to play themselves out as Hamlet wakes up in his suite, spying the ghost through his window and reciting the “angels and ministers of grace defend us” (I.iv.39) speech with the proper amount of astonished wonder, which only adds to the true chill down one’s spine Sam Shepard’s suitably grave voice as Hamlet’s father sends his son and the viewer. The Ghost’s eyes have the right far-away look of a spirit having to wander through purgatory, and Shepard holds a handkerchief which he puts on his ear on occasion to signify the point on his body where the poison that killed him was poured. Shepard’s performance is stunning in terms of the changes in emotion over one scene that it carries out: his face screaming vengeful anger one second then fatherly care the next, his voice near crying at “O horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!” (80), and cracking as he pleads with Hawke to leave his mother “to heaven.” One of Almereyda’s successful original touches adds even more riveting tension to the scene as the Ghost, on his way out, hugs his son strongly with a heartfelt plea to “remember me.”

On the other side of the coin, another example of the director’s tendency to overdo the visuals is his footage of Hamlet contemplating suicide with a gun to his head while saying “to be or not to be,” hammering the subject of his coming soliloquy over a viewer’s head when a close reading of the words would do. Later, although Murray gives Hawke’s feigned “antic disposition” some weight with the shock in his face after Hamlet asks “into my grave?” (II.ii.204), Hawke fails to show it with outward feeling, which is unfathomable considering he has a gun in his hand and pretends to forget that Polonius has a daughter. The scene occurs in a different order than Shakespeare’s, before Polonius’ tedious “your noble son is mad” conversation with his bosses at Denmark Corp, which was probably done to give Murray further reason, besides Hamlet’s love letter to Ophelia, to think of Hawke’s character as insane, a curious choice because Hawke hasn’t exploited that element of the text yet, and Polonius as well as the King and Queen end up looking ridiculous pretending something that’s clearly missing is appearing in a disturbing manner.

The most famous soliloquy in the English language occurs next, and Hawke’s portrayal of Hamlet as a miserable young man is right on the money here as he walks through the countless “action” racks in a Blockbuster store. This could obviously be Mr. Almereyda’s ploy to hammer the viewer with Hamlet’s inability to carry out the revenge he’s “bound to,” with further evidence of that being the showing on each TV screen in the building of a clip from “The Crow II: City of Angels,” a movie of a man who, with his son, witnessed a murder and was killed by a deranged gang thereafter, returning from the dead to exact retribution. However, the director’s more clever and effective stylistic giveaway is to show the video racks stacked with many copies of such mediocre contemporary entertainment as “Lost In Space,” “Krippendorf’s Tribe” and “Small Soldiers” while carrying a single tape of the Orson Welles classic “The Third Man.” One can easily deduce why the filmmaker Hawke plays would find “all the uses of this world” not living for if he can’t even find a good variety of movies at the local video store, and Almereyda also cleverly excuses Hamlet from having shown any of the “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” other characters speak of by highlighting Hawke’s belief that the Ghost may have been the Devil in “a pleasing shape” (580), taking advantage of Hamlet’s “weakness and melancholy” (581).

The soliloquy at the end of Act Two in the play serves in the film as the point after which many of the actors’ emotional restraints come off, with the complexity of Claudius and Gertrude appearing in their conniving and defensive response when their reign is truly under threat after Hamlet, showing outward anger and a lack of sanity, follows his discovery of Murray’s wire planted under Ophelia’s clothing with the private screening of his “The Mousetrap.” Before the film Hawke has over-the-top fun with the “Lady, shall I lie in your lap” (III.ii.104) conversation with Ophelia, which he purposely allows everyone in the screening room to hear, but he saves the real entertainment for his video footage. Entertaining it is, as Almereyda splices together old TV and film clips of, in sequence, fatherly love, murder by poison, the murderer’s seduction of his victim’s wife, and finally, the murderer’s crowning as king, backed to a driving score reminiscent of the agitative propaganda films of Sergei Eisenstein, to create a sequence so astonishing it must be seen to be believed. This film elicited feelings in me as disturbing as those in the minds of the King and Queen, and Almereyda’s most shocking image of two lovers in a porn film only adds to the dramatic tension.

A scene that comes close to matching this level of high drama is Hamlet’s meeting with his mother in the royal suite, Hawke’s “diseased wit” in full force and Venora highly offended by his previous behaviour along with his “idle tongue.” Almereyda stages the scene compellingly, as he sets Polonius up inside her closet, with its one-way mirrors acting not only as Murray’s cover but as Hamlet’s prop, moving his mother in front of it saying “a glass/where you may see the inmost part of you” (III.iv.18-19), Hawke pronouncing “inmost” in two long syllables for emphasis and howling in his most emotive anger yet as he thrashes the bed around during “… but to live/in the rank sweat of of an enseamèd bed …” (92-93). Gertrude one-ups one of Hawke’s best scenes with what is undoubtedly her finest in its nimble yet subtle changes in emotion, from shock at her son’s murderous ways to repentant grief for what she’s done to fear of Hamlet’s apparent insanity as he speaks to a ghost she cannot see. One key piece of dialogue noticeably cut from Shakespeare is the continuation for “waits upon the judgment,” which is as important a question for Hamlet to ask his mother as “have you eyes” is at this juncture; “… and what judgment would step from this to this?” (71-72).

Hawke keeps improving as the film progresses, with a final soliloquy that is pitch-perfect in its variety, from the self-hatred in the speech until “Rightly to be great” (IV.iv.53), to the faulty reasoning in that argument, and finally to the deliberate motivation of “My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth…” (66), with the foreshadowing score adding to the sense of dread and coming finality in the last two lines. The acting is well followed by McLachlan’s and Schreiber’s measured grief as well as the latter’s righteous anger, and Ophelia’s emotion in the latter parts of the scene is nicely contrasted by her own madness when re-appearing after the death of her father. Almereyda gives Stiles a deservingly affecting farewell with the stunning image of her tiny body drowned in a large, majestic fountain.

Her subsequent funeral unbelievably trumps Shakespeare’s template, which calls for a theatrical war of griefs between Laertes and Hamlet, which in this case would have cheated Hawke’s and Schreiber’s emotions, which are honest and to be expected, as is their fight afterwards. The scene comes across as touching rather than dubiously emotional, especially as Hamlet asks Laertes in an earnest, not melodramatic, manner how he would show his love for Ophelia besides jumping in her grave with reckless abandon.

Unfortunately, the mostly positive momentum the film builds from the “what dreams may come” soliloquy to the beginning of the dénouement does not prevent the final battle from becoming a colossal disappointment for several reasons. Firstly, keeping the fencing duel from Shakespeare’s plot is anti-climactic in the present-day from a competitive standpoint when a much more contemporary contest, such as a basketball game, would have done. Secondly, Ethan Hawke’s and Liev Schreiber’s physical attributes as well as character portrayals make it hardly believable that the smallish, timid artist Hamlet is would be a better swordsman than the intimidating, vengefully violent man Laertes becomes after Polonius’ murder and Ophelia’s suicide. Third and most importantly, other directorial choices kill any dramatic suspense, apart from the poignant music of the score, that the ending should create if the text is faithfully followed. For example, Gertrude’s insistence on drinking the wine is hardly opposed by Claudius, rendering her death unnoticeable by any character but his and thus missing out on creating any tension. Next, the gunshots exchanged by the swordsmen are implausible because Laertes should have shot Hamlet from afar as he eventually does Claudius. The lack of palpable emotion in Claudius as his wife is dying also plagues Hawke’s foil Karl Geary, as his emotionless “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” (V.ii.348) does no justice to the line’s passion, and, finally, the director’s grainy montage of prior scenes from the film as Hamlet dies fails as another ham-fisted attempt to elicit emotion through image when it is clearly absent in the cast’s actions.

Works Cited

Hamlet. Dir. Michael Almereyda. DVD. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, 2000.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Harcourt Brace Anthology of Drama. W.B. Worthen. 3rd Ed. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2000. pages 298-340.

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