Hamlet Takes Manhattan
Corporate update infuses energy into timeless classic
By Ellison Walcott

Shakespeare's magical plays have always been inspiration for contemporary directors to adapt and bring to the silver screen. Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet stood faithful to tradition and provided audiences with a four-hour movie. Few and far between dare to alter the sacred Elizabethan words or settings, for fear of not living up to the original genius. Paul Mazursky's Tempest and Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet tested the universal nature of Shakespeare's plays by giving them an innovative spin. Both directors rewrote Shakespeare and challenged the boundaries of the brainy bard. (And that's to say nothing of Mel Gibson's Hamlet.) Their imagination brought the stories to a younger audience and helped to make Bill stylish again, even if the films themselves were flawed.

Michael Almereyda's version of Hamlet pulls off a bona fide caper. Reverent to Shakespeare's Elizabethan English, he reduces the original play to its core narrative and traverses both the Elizabethan and modern time zones. Almereyda places Shakespeare's Hamlet in present-day, glittering Manhattan with all the trappings of its commercial glamorati. Branagh's 1996 adaptation is touching; but Almereyda's dark rendering makes the material compelling to a 21st century audience.

Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), Hamlet's uncle, and his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) have married only a month after the death of his father. Claudius has overtaken the Denmark Corporation and replaced Hamlet's father as CEO. All kinds of spectres bombard Hamlet (Ethan Hawke). As expected, the ghost of his father (Sam Shepard) surfaces to enlighten his son on the true course of his death. (This is not the first time Sam Shepard and Ethan Hawke have portrayed father and son. Teamed together in Snow Falling on Cedars, Hawke's character was also haunted by the colossal spectre of his father; both films are plagued with moral dilemmas.)

Embittered Hamlet is a brooding twenty-something whose days revolve around recording his life and referring to himself as a documentary filmmaker. He has all the paraphernalia and toys that allow him to push his own pain buttons to relive moments that accentuate his grief.

As a wannabe videomaker Hamlet sports a Nordic-geek chic earflap hat and yellow tinted glasses. Media barrages this inconsolable, existential prince. He contemplates his "To Be or Not To Be" speech while walking down the Action aisle in a Blockbuster video store. Manhattan is diluted to its bare visual icons of towering steel, limos and affluent socialites who scheme against their children. The whole milieu bears a shrouded tone, like a soundless slow motion film of a building exploding.

Hamlet takes action by creating a documentary that demonstrates his feelings about his mother and stepfather's relationship. He reveals that he knows that Claudius caused the demise of his dear old dad.

As Shakespeare, Isaac Newton lives, and every action still has an opposite and equal reaction, and every character in this movie emotionally responds to Hamlet's blatant accusation. Chaos commences and the best-laid plans go awry. Claudius is on the hunt and Hamlet's downfall ensues as he tries to avenge his father.

Every actor speaks the Queen's English, as if they have performed Shakespeare's plays for their entire careers. Liev Schreiber's performance, as Laertes is exemplary; even Shakespeare would endorse his recitation. Like Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora, he is an old hand at playing the Shakespearean stage. However, Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles (Ophelia) are not, but are just as successful.

The most surprising performance, however, comes from comedian Bill Murray. As Polonius, Murray delivers his lines like a poised cynic. He takes the pokerfaced humor he learned as a young comedic actor and gives the role a worn, saddened quality. Every line is delivered with ease and great sincerity.

As true to Shakespeare's script, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the hired thugs to bring Hamlet to his fate; in a modern day twist, the two heavies are sent their instructions via email and Hamlet hacks into the computer and reverses their fortunes.

Any staging of Hamlet is a tribute to an age-old tradition that has withstood the test of time.

The tragedy here is the same as in Shakespeare's version. Hamlet sets on a collision course with self-destruction and doesn't look back, though his downward spiral is more effortless than in Shakespeare's time. Setting it in the high rises of Manhattan allows Almereyda even more props to accentuate the foreboding nature of the plot.

Our modern-day Hamlet creates a media blitz worth any recent, tragic, high profile scandal. He comes to his end and leaves an unlucky legacy. As with any convoluted conspiracy, the walls eventually come tumbling down, and there are no more closets in which to hide the skeletons. Hamlet begets an ill-fated finish to executives, their wives, and their families. And at the end of the movie, true to Shakespeare's tale, we question why, and are left in a fog of befuddled confusion.

That's why they call it tragedy.