Dave's Other Movie Log




Last weekend I watched Joseph Mankiewicz's admirable movie adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for the first time in over forty years in order to refresh my acquaintance with what has always stood out in my memory as Sir John Gielgud's most formidable screen appearance. At the same time, the viewing gave me even another reason for loathing Gladiator, but little did I wot something far worse than a stupidly contrived Roman epic lay in my future. Whatever might have been rotten in the state of Denmark in Prince Hamlet's time is nought in comparison to what's rotten in this modernization of Shakespeare's most celebrated tragedy. Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyrda, who is also responsible for the adaptation such as it is, shifts the action from the court at Elsinore to a huge business enterprise--of what kind the film never bothers to make clear--called the Denmark Corp., located in a very contemporary Manhattan. Claudius is the head of Denmark Corp. who has just eliminated his older brother and married the latter's widow when Hamlet, a very trendy looking Ethan Hawke, returns from the university to size up matters at the co(u)rp(t). 

I wish I could talk myself into believing Almereyda had intended this venture as a camp hoot, a possibility almost suggested by the film's MTV style editing and aggressively florid mise en scène, laden down with flashing lights, glittering surfaces, muddy digital images, and enough computer screens for a host of science fiction films. If that were true, then the film might have had some redeeming humorous value, but the hapless viewer is doomed to be cheated of such a lucky stroke. From the opening titles, underneath which he lays the thunderously ominous initial chords of the first movement of Johannes Brahms's  First Symphony, the director makes it clear the audience is in for a dose of Serious Art. Time to doff your hats in respect, folks! Sad to say, a number of reviewers have taken this ludicrous claim at face value, apparently always willing to be impressed with how movies are finally growing up and tackling Big Questions about Life and Death. Who knows? Maybe Almereyda's next project will be a screen adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness set at a ski resort in the Rockies and starring Mr. Hawke as Inauthenticity.

Just to show the groundlings his intentions are good, Almereyda has retained the original dialogue of the play. But the highly stylized language of Hamlet, nearly as far removed from the colloquial speech of Shakespeare's day as it is from the present day American vernacular, clashes head on with the realistic presentation of the story, which unfolds in corporate boardrooms, fancy apartments, laundromats, discos, etc. I have no problems with modernizing a play like Hamlet nor I do regard Shakespeare's text as Holy Writ that cannot be tampered with. In particular, I think a great deal might be gained by moving a traditional play into a totally different space and taking it out of the still residually sacred precincts of the theater. Why not perform Sophocles' Electra on a basketball court? Or Racine's Phèdre on a loading dock in an industrial park?  But the movie Hamlet wants to have its cake and eat it too, violently forcing the resonant lines of an Elizabethan tragedy into a setting which simply has no relation to them. What sense does Laertes' advice to his sister about not falling prey to Hamlet's wiles have in a world where teenage girls take the pill? What meaning does the priest's refusal to allow Ophelia burial in consecrated ground have in a highly secularized country like the United States? 

In criticizing the movie Hamlet in this way, I am in no way trying to play the role of professional curmudgeon. Personally, I would require some sense of responsibility from a director filming a low-budget action movie, and I think there is all the more cause to apply the same standard here, given the picture's incredible pretensions. There are enough imaginative and intelligent ways a great traditional drama could be transferred to the film medium without indulging in a fit of incense burning, as has often happened with movie versions of Shakespeare in the past. In fact, if Almereyda wanted to intentionally create an effect of dissonance between the dialogue and the setting, to perhaps deconstruct the effect of tragedy in that way, I would think it as valid an approach to staging Hamlet as any other, but nothing in the movie justifies such an hypothesis. Otherwise, only a treatment as stylized as the language itself could legitimize a modernization like this one. Even a scenario which used the basic plot of the play and only evoked memories of Hamlet around the edges of the action--as does Theo Angelopoulos' epic The Travelling Players (1975), employing Aeschylus' Oresteia as the background to a political drama which takes place in rural Greece in the Second World War and later--could have been far more artistically successful than what Almereyda has managed to come up with.

To complicate matters further, Almereyda only remains faithful to the play as long as it suits his purposes. It is not worth quibbling over a solecism like Hawke's reading "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" as "in our philosophy," which I distinctly heard. Nor is it worth wasting words over the elimination of the scene between Hamlet and the Gravedigger or the addition of a body blow to the action when Claudius encounters Hamlet after the murder of Polonius. Two alterations that do merit some comment are the episode of the play within the play and the staging of the final scene. In Shakespeare's drama, Hamlet surreptitiously asks the players to add some lines he has written to the play they are going to stage in order to test the king's conscience. But in the movie, Hamlet concocts an animated video for which he claims sole credit, a creation that seems to have been pieced together from the outtakes of Todd Haynes's Poison and which is so muddled I doubt even a ruler as paranoid as Claudius would be able to make any sense out of what he was seeing. What is the point of this innovation except to show the audience what a hip dude this Prince Hamlet is? ("A video! How cool")

Even worse are Almereyda's improvements on the finale. Is it necessary to recall that a duel in the Renaissance was a highly formal affair and no free for all? One of Shakespeare's great inspirations in Hamlet was to make the formality of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes coincide with the sense of formal ritual that always accompanies the sacrifice of a tragic hero. But the only sacrifice taking place here is that of the viewer's time and patience. In the play the action unfolds slowly, in a terrifying pavane. However, Almereyda will have none of this but starts by having Laertes refuse to shake hands with Hamlet, presumably to show the audience what an intransigent dork he is--although the play (5.2.223) has Claudius saying "Come, Hamlet, come and take this hand from me," followed by the stage direction: "he puts the hand of Laertes into the hand of Hamlet...." in the movie, Hamlet and Laertes then fight only once, after which Laertes attacks Hamlet and everything turns into an orgy of bloodletting, although worse is to come. When Horatio says, "And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" the movie cuts to a jet flying through the sky, leaving a vapor trail in its wake. Now bogus angelology as well as bargain-basement eschatology may be reckoned among the heresies of the contemporary cinema.

It is hardly any surprise when James Dean shows up in one of the many film clips that adorn the Hamlet movie. Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan's East of Eden, as a misunderstood adolescent, and Kyle MacLachlan reciprocates by playing Claudius as if he were Raymond Massey in the role of father Adam. Thus do the Oedipal clichés of yesteryear end up by being filtered down to the present through a posthumously modernist haze. In an interview that appeared in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar for 6/11/00, Almereyda was quoted as saying, " I was struck by the fact that when I first read 'Hamlet' in high school how connected and immediate and emotional it was, and how I'd never seen a movie that showed Hamlet as a young man." While it is possible to respect the intensity of the response the play elicited in the adolescent reader, it is nonetheless demonstrable that Hamlet is no Romeo nor any other of Shakespeare's callow romantic heroes. The tragedy's namesake is a reflective, mature figure, a genuine "Renaissance man" straight out of the pages of Baldassare Castiglione's The Courtier, in the darkness of whose soul all the doubts and anxieties of the age fester. The Renaissance fell between two great ages of belief, the medieval one of religion and the modern one of science: it could not return to the simple faith of the former, but without the faith in reason the following century was about to usher in, it could only pose questions for which there were no longer evident answers. In Shakespeare's hands the données of the revenge tragedy serve as a catalyst for bringing those unanswered questions out into the light of day in some of the most famous soliloquies ever penned by any dramatist. 

Prince Hamlet does not need to wear the kothurnoi to make it clear who the hero of the drama is: his words do that by their sheer power. In no other of the great Shakespearean tragedies does the principal character dominate the play to such an extent as the Melancholy Dane does. Julius Caesar, Macbeth or Lear may be greater works of art, but Hamlet is a player's play if there ever was one. That is hardly the least of the reasons that great tragedians from David Garrick in the eighteenth century down to John Barrymore, Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud in the twentieth have made a specialty of the role. But no one would guess that from Ethan Hawke's inadequate, whiney performance. Some years ago, in GQ or a similar publication, I read that Hawke had dropped out of drama school when he was asked to perform Hamlet in tights. Is this sad excuse for a movie his belated revenge on the Bard? Nor do most of the other performers rise above his level of mediocrity: Diane Venora makes a shrill Gertrude, Kyle MacLachlan a bureaucratically stuffy Claudius,  and Julia Stiles a silly Ophelia straight out of Baywatch, while Sam Shepard is frightful rather than frightening as the Ghost of Hamlet's father. (I will refrain from mentioning the names of the ill-fated actors appearing in the lesser but hardly insignificant roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who play the characters as a pair of stoned freaks-- "The rest is silence" might be the most apt comment here.) Alone among the other players, Bill Murray seems to have found the right tone as Polonius, a blend of Shakespeare's tedious councilor and  a harried executive, but he had far more ample scope for his talents as the has-been ventriloquist in Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. In this movie, his efforts are only "Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame."

Frequency   Liliom  Boys Don't Cry   Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai  The Green Mile  Erin Brockovich  The Beach  U-571  Gladiator  Mission: Impossible II

E-mail Dave at daveclayton@worldnet.att.net
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