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Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet

The president of the Denmark Corporation is found dead. The grieving son Hamlet returns home to New York just in time for a press conference in which Uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) announces his takeover of the Denmark Corporation, his marriage to Hamlets mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) and his dismissal of Fortinbras threats of a hostile takeover. Welcome to Hamlet for the new millennium. In this world of global corporations, laptop computers, surveillance cameras and palm sized camcorders, Hamlet is a would be video artist whos trying to make sense of the images that surround him. After a visitation from the ghost of his father (Sam Shepard), Hamlet suspects his uncle of foul play. As a test, Hamlet makes an experimental video entitled The Mousetrap in which hell catch the conscience of Claudius. Then he screens the video for the elite of the Denmark Corporation and ruffles the feathers of the image conscious Claudius. Now Hamlet must take up the cause of avenging his fathers death.

Michael Almereyda brought vampires to modern day New York in Nadja and gave a contemporary twist to mummies in Trance. So his revistionist approach to Hamlet should not come as a surprise. Shakespeare purists will no doubt be offended by Almereydas approach. He liberally cuts the text so that the traveling players and the gravedigger are completely gone. He reshuffles scenes so that the What a piece of work is man soliloquoy now begins the film while many later scenes are started, stopped and then completed with Hamlet phoning in the final lines. And he updates the play to contemporary life so that Hamlet delivers To be or not to be in the action aisle of Blockbuster and the closing lines are typed on a teleprompter and delivered as part of the evening news by Robin MacNeil

Is this sacrilidge? Or is it simply a way of reinventing Shakespeare for a new generation? I believe the latter and despite some flaws, Almereydas Hamlet offers an invigorating re-imagining of Shakespeares play. Hamlets ability to repeatedly play lines on his video machines, allows Shakespeares text to come alive in new ways. The film also makes poor Ophelia (Julia Stiles) a greater accomplice in her fathers duplicitous plans because when she meets with Hamlet she wears a wire like an informant. Plus, the players may be gone but this Y2K Hamlet now looks at images of James Dean and wonders what the young actor would do. In fact, Dean would have been perfect playing Hamlet in Almereydas film; hes an icon of troubled youth and his method approach suits the characters troubled search for proper motivation for his actions.

In essence, Almereyda presents Hamlet and Ophelia as mixed up kids not unlike James Dean and Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause. Hamlet and Ophelia seem like poster kids for teen suicide awareness. They both appear suicidal from early on and their respective parents fail to understand them and fail to provide good role models. The youthfulness of Hamlet makes his suicidal thoughts as well as his indecision make more sense. And his tragedy is all the greater because of the potential lost.

What the character and the film lack, however, is a sense of fun. Despite the heavy drama, Hamlet is one of Shakespeares sharpest wits and theres a playful aspect to his character which is almost entirely lost here. The sulky, somber monotone of Hawkes Hamlet weakens but does not ruin the film.

All in all, though, Almereyda casts his film cleverly. MacLachlan makes a smug, ruthless Claudius; Diane Venora brings a depth to Gertrude which may come from the fact that she has played both Ophelia and Hamlet on stage; Bill Murray finds a tragic strain of comedy in Polonius; and Sam Shepard makes a very real and tangible ghost.

Michael Almereyda calls Hamlet a great echo chamber, it absorbs and amplifies the voice of everyone who enters it. Almereydas approach offers a flawed, exciting, modern adaptation of Hamlet that redefines the Bards character for a new generation. And thats the way it should be, each generation needs to discover what Hamlet has to say to them. -----

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