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«I. “A Hostile Takeover of Hamlet; Ophelia’s Wried like Linda Trip,” Andrew Sarris, New York Observer, May 15, 2000. Shakespeare’s dramatic ...»

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REVIEWS OF ALMEREYDA’S HAMLET

I.

“A Hostile Takeover of Hamlet; Ophelia’s Wried like Linda Trip,” Andrew Sarris, New York Observer,

May 15, 2000

... Shakespeare’s dramatic and poetic genius becomes a distraction from the director’s visual improvisations

with all the updated media technology at his disposal. Though the state of Denmark-about which there is

something rotten-becomes the Denmark Corporation fighting a hostile takeover by the Norway Corporation and its chief executive, Mr. Fortinbras, the American cast is still saddled with the original text, which means that the lines are read for the most part with more feeling for the angry-stepchild plot than for the iambic pentameter.

The old question arises: What is Shakespeare to cinema and what is cinema to Shakespeare? We have been told often enough that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be in Sundance with a script and a cell phone. Also, it can be argued that by jazzing up an old chestnut as if it were some sort of video game, more young people will become familiar with a great literary landmark of Western civilization. Yet as a reviewer for a teen-age magazine remarked, this latest update of Hamlet will never replace Cliffs Notes.

As for Mr. Almereyda’s claim to our attention as a low-budget innovator in the medium worthy of a retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives, I must confess total ignorance of his past decade’s output that has caused Film Comment to lionize him as “indie-cinema’s best-kept secret.” Nonetheless, Mr. Almereyda, a bit like Woody Allen, has developed a talent for persuading interesting performers to work for beer-andpretzel money. Hence, any project with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, Kyle MacLachlan as Claudius, Diane Venora as Gertrude, Liev Schreiber as Laertes, Julia Stiles as Ophelia and Bill Murray as Polonius is not without some iconic anticipation apart from the inevitable derision to be expected from American Anglophiles brought up on the Knights and Dames of the British stage peerage....

Though Basil Sydney’s Claudius in Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is still the Claudius to beat, Mr. MacLachlan’s runs a close second for his originality in stressing the womanizing side of the character over the traditional pseudopatriarch. Ms. Venora tries hard to make new sense of Gertrude, but the bizarre staging of the big scenes defeat all her efforts.

Mr. Schreiber seems too levelheaded as Laertes to play the hothead, and Ms. Stiles still looks like a comer, particularly by keeping a straight face as Ophelia when Mr. Murray’s Polonius wires her for her meeting with Hamlet as if she were Linda Tripp.

On the whole, however, Mr. Almereyda has created some interesting effects with a wide variety of mirrors, screens and natural reflections, thus magnifying the central character by the sheer multiplicity of his likenesses in both real and virtual reality. The director is astute also with his deployment of paparazzi in the certification of today’s media mania over celebrities as the equivalent of yesterday’s crowd scenes under the balconies on which crowned heads waved and ruled for centuries. A more cynical reviewer than I might itemize also the suspiciously prominent product placements over the dazzling Manhattan nightscape. As it is, I still like to give struggling artists the benefit of every doubt.

II.

“A Simpler Melancholy,” Elvis Mitchell, New York Times, May 12, 2000 ''It is curious; one never thinks of attaching 'Hamlet' to any special locale,'' the critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the director Michael Almereyda has brilliantly seized upon that by rooting his voluptuous and rewarding new adaptation of the play in today's Manhattan. The city's Page 1 of 6 contradictions of beauty and squalor give the movie a sense of place -- it makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you'll ever see in a film -- and New York becomes a complex character in this vital and sharply intelligent film. Mr. Almereyda contours the material to his own needs, even though he was inspired by the 1987 ''Hamlet Goes Business,'' a deadpan update by the renegade Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. This ''Hamlet'' is also set in the corporate world, where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has risen to the top of the Denmark Corporation....

Mr. Almereyda has created a new standard for adaptations of Shakespeare, starting with an understanding of the emotional pull of the material that corresponds with its new period and setting. Hamlet's soliloquies are now interior monologues except for the ''To be or not to be'' speech, which he delivers in a Blockbuster video store, using the blue in the company logo and the word ''Action'' emblazoned on the shelves to fit in with the mood and color of the rest of the picture.

The director's rigorous trimming has a boldness and vivacity that makes this version exhilarating while leaving Shakespeare's language and intent intact. The use of colors -- its palette is red, green and the aforementioned blue -- is a visual manifestation of the streamlining. This movie will send shivers of happiness through audiences because it's one of the few American productions of ''Hamlet'' constructed around the rhythms of the actors, giving each scene a different pulse.

Mr. Almereyda plays to his performers' strengths, and it's awe inspiring. The truly revelatory performance comes from the ravaged dignity that Bill Murray lends Polonius, a weary, middle-aged man whose every utterance sounds like a homily he should believe in and perhaps did many years ago. Mr. Murray takes the bemused hollowness he first discovered in sketch comedy and gives it a worn, saddened undercurrent; it's what those bullying cynics he plays in comedies would be like in real life after about 20 years. The speech Polonius gives to his son, Laertes (Liev Schreiber), has a truth that ''Death of a Salesman'' can only aspire to and certifies Mr. Murray -- who's been giving fully shaped performances in bad or little-seen movies for years -- as one of the finest actors currently working. ''Madam, I use no art at all,'' he says at one point, and it's true; he uses apparent artlessness to achieve art.





It's not just Mr. Murray and Ms. Venora who are worth watching. Mr. MacLachlan's Claudius has a hailfellow-well-met shallowness, a blandness tinged with creeping ambition. Mr. Schreiber is all lovely Old World elegance; he uses his resonant, trained voice to find the injured quality of lines like ''You wound me, sir,'' and offers a classical turn in the midst of the modernity. Steve Zahn plays Rosencrantz as slacker-weasel with a blurry twang that is just what's called for here. And Karl Geary is a steadfast, affecting Horatio.

Conceptually, ''Hamlet'' has all the goods and then some. Oddly enough, the title character is a little lacking in complication. Mr. Hawke's laudable commitment to the project was obviously responsible for getting it made, and his feline transparency would appear to be right for a Hamlet wrestling with the urge to kill Claudius and avenge his father's death.

But this Hamlet, wearing knit caps that make him look like a lost member of the Spin Doctors, is mired in an arrested adolescence that infantilizes him. For this conception to be fully realized, Hamlet's interior monologues shouldn't so fully mirror what's going on with him outwardly; a contrast would have provided some tension. Mr. Hawke's moping slows things down too much, and a clip from a James Dean movie playing behind him emphasizes the self-pitying aspect.

Julia Stiles plays Ophelia, and this may be the first time in her brief film career that this wildly talented young actress has seemed immature. ''Hamlet'' exploits her youth effectively: Polonius laces up her sneakers as he addresses her. But Ms. Stiles seems too much a child and often can't get her footing as the production

sprints past her. Her natural onscreen empathy does allow for several moments that get under the skin:

Ophelia plunges into an azure pool, imagining her death; she's often photographed at some of the most beautiful fountains and water spouts in New York. And when distraught, she dissolves into sobs, flinging Page 2 of 6 Polaroids as if they were flower petals; it's heart-rending. The scenes she has with Mr. Hawke with a conventional and definable give-and-take also serve her well....

III.

“Nothing rotten at Denmark Inc., Strong acting, style power 'Hamlet's' millennial make over,” Wesley Morris, San FranciscoExaminer, May 19, 2000 (excerpt) If a soulessness creeps into Almereyda's "Hamlet," it's more because the bounty of this project is richer than he's prepared to tackle. Its timelessness and timeliness seem to be dueling for primacy as though one or the other has to win. Is the film the moodiest, most atmospheric, audacious Ethan Hawke movie ever - or an inventive recalibration of Shakespeare to comment on a corporate culture? Sometimes the film manages to be a heated synthesis of the two, perhaps aided by Almereyda's minced, pan-and-scan handling of the text versus Kenneth Branagh's four-hour letterboxed version.

But it seems to be Almereyda's wish to turn the play less into a diatribe against consumerism (although there is some inspired product placement) and more into a love sonnet for New York, an organism here as temperamental and somber as the players populating it. The characters often speak in hollow spaces where the acoustics seem to give the words lives of their own. Bill Murray, doing a beautifully solemn rendition of Polonius, gives the "brevity is the soul of wit" speech on the deck of the indoor pool in Gertrude (Diane Venora) and Claudius' penthouse overlooking Central Park and the phrases bounce off the windows. His language is measured, the insouciance in the monologue dried into the business of his daughter Ophelia's (Julia Stiles) affair with their son. Polonius is a clown who's traded the circus for fatherhood and an Alfred Dunhill suit. Ophelia, who is wiretapped and forced to end things with Hamlet, begins unwinding inside the spirals of the Guggenheim Museum, her shrieks reverberating through the coiled space like electricity.

Ophelia seems more the pawn than she's been before. Stiles looks tortured, despondent, angry, feral on the inside, her words hardened into wood. Outfitted in downtown Euro-chic (tiny T-shirts, nylon parachute pants and a messenger bag), she's like a gorgeous piece of mise-en-scene. Shepard, on the other hand, unlocks the text with patient, hushed danger. He gets behind the words and pours gasoline over them, then rocks the Ghost's fury and betrayal.

The interplay of location and language gives the play its umpteenth life. It's "Hamlet Unplugged," strippeddown and heady. And as a cosmetics-first experiment in atmosphere, "Hamlet" is almost daring. Almereyda, who has done some groundbreaking work with a Fisher-Price Pixel-Vision video camera, encourages his crew to emphasize the upscale glamour as a counterpoint to the ugliness in the story, though Hamlet's fencing duel with a fire-breathing Laertes (Liev Schreiber) and the gunplay that ensues is almost ruinous, too indulgent by half.

But Almereyda does a wonderful thing with the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, using the words of pacifist Buddhist guru Thich Nhat Hanh ("You need others to be") - who appears in a video monitor - in order to combat Hamlet's sullen-murderous-suicidal thoughts. Shakespeare's ideas of ontology and existentialism are pitted against the Zen variations. But what difference does it make to a Hamlet who spends his evenings alone, trolling the aisles of his local Blockbuster, waxing about "the insolence of office?" He's the only guy in the store who refuses to go home happy.

IV.

Stephanie Zacharek, “Hamlet,” Salon, http://www.salon.com/entertainment/movies/review /2000/05/12/hamlet/ index.html?CP=SAL&DN=110, August 2000 Michael Almereyda's somber, gorgeous, darkly glittering "Hamlet," set in New York in the early days of the 21st century, is so perfectly modern, and yet so mindful of the tradition of the play, that it seems to exist in two worlds at once. There's no sense that the narrative texture had to be jazzed up in order to make the Page 3 of 6 material seem relevant to a modern audience. If anything, Almereyda's "Hamlet" is a meditation on the timelessness of the material. It's deeply inventive within the framework of the story, and it's funny in unexpected places. Every actor involved rises to the challenge of the language (Almereyda has streamlined the play for the screen but hasn't updated the text), although not every performer comes at it in an expected, or officially sanctioned, way.



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