Itís been said that you canít put a good man down, but that thought also applies to good pieces of literature. Not only are the works from the likes of Shakespeare and Dickens still being read centuries after their authors went to the great bookshop in the sky, but they continue to be the sources of films, whether as direct adaptations, modified ones, or simply the basis for the basic plot of new cinematic works.
Even more so than Dickensí "Great Expectations" - thatís been filmed many times before it was given the modern update in Alfonso Cuarůís 1998 version (that interestingly enough, also starred Ethan Hawke who headlines this film) - William Shakespeareís "Hamlet" has been filmed more than enough times to create is own mini-film festival.
Starring the likes of performers ranging from Olivier to Gibson to Branagh, and even permeating the underlying themes of seemingly non-related films such as "The Lion King," the time-tested plot has been told and retold over and over again. Now, with the latest version of the story, it too gets a modern retrofitting.
As was the case with "Expectations," the questions that beg to be asked are whether we need yet another installment of the film and if the modernized update is a good idea. While purists may balk at such "tampering," others may see the change as a good thing. After all, the traditional telling of the story has been done perhaps more than enough times.
Putting a new twist on the venerable story of an angered prince and his tale of revenge is certainly a way to bring in the younger crowd (even with Shakespeareís original prose remaining intact), as long as itís kept under the 4 or 6-hour versions that Kenneth Branagh most recently delivered. Besides, the basic story is timeless and thus should theoretically play in nearly any setting or time, as the recent modernized adaptations of "Romeo and Juliet" and "Titus Andronicus" proved.
More importantly, however, is whether the new version works, and if the time-tested story benefits from its modern trappings. One would have to work awfully hard to disrupt Shakespeareís plot and director Michael Almereyda ("Trance," "Nadja"), who also adapted the Bardís story to the big screen, certainly doesnít do anything to ruin the basic underlying plot or theme. Those familiar with the story will easily recognize the parallels the writer/director has made between the Elizabethan and 21st century times (e.g. corruption in powerful entities, etc.).
Where Almereyda does make changes is with certain details. The state of Denmark is now the Denmark corporation, Hamlet uses a movie screening to prove his uncleís corruption instead of the staging of a play, and the famous "To be, or not to be" monologue takes place not once, but twice (the first simply repeats the well-known opening several times on video) with the latter occurring in a symbolism-laden Blockbuster Video store (where footage from "The Crow" and its similarly doomed young star plays in the background).
A more significant change is in the first casting of an actor for the lead part whoís under the age of thirty. As the doomed, brooding and disillusioned "prince," the talented Ethan Hawke ("Snow Falling on Cedars," "Gattaca") delivers a performance thatís certain to divide audiences, not to mention Shakespearean purists, over his take on the character. Iím still not quite sure how I feel about it. The disenchanted youth angle certainly works for both the traditional story and this modern retelling of it, and the actor does a decent job delivering the standard dialogue. Yet, at times, the lackluster way in which Hawke plays the character (and dresses - with, among other things, a silly looking hat) didnít really jive for me and certainly doesnít make him appealing and/or sympathetic to the viewer.
Kyle MacLachlan ("The Flintstones," TVís "Twin Peaks") and Sam Shepard ("The Right Stuff," "Steel Magnolias"), however, are perfectly fine as the treacherous uncle and the apparition of his murdered brother, the former "king," respectively, and Diane Venora ("True Crime," "Heat") is generally okay as both menís lover, although she isnít given enough of an opportunity to give the character its needed depth.
Both Julia Stiles ("Ten Things I Hate About You," "The Devilís Own") and Liev Schreiber ("Jakob the Liar," the "Scream" films) are good as the tragic sibling duo of Ophelia and Laertes, while Steve Zahn ("Happy, Texas," "That Thing You Do!) an"d Dechen Thurman ("Tears of Julian Po," "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") appear as the infamous Rosencratz and Guildenstern. Only Bill Murray ("Rushmore," the "Ghostbusters" films), as Claudiusí advisor, Polonius, seems miscast and that has nothing to do with his performance, which is just fine.
Instead, and as was the case with Jack Lemmon in Branaghís version of the story, the actor carries certain visual "baggage" wherever he goes that reminds viewers of his past work. While heís certainly turned into a fine dramatic actor, his portrayal of Polonius seems filtered (subconsciously, of course) through the likes of Carl Spackler ("Caddyshack") and John Winger ("Stripes"), and as such, somewhat handicaps his effort.
To the laypersonís ears, it does take a while to become acclimated to Shakespeareís original dialogue, but the basic story is as clear as usual for most to grasp and comprehend. Although the disparity between such language and the modern setting seems a bit odd at first, it doesnít take long for the two to gel, and some of the filmmakerís adaptive, contemporary tinkering is clever in execution. One only wishes, however, that Almereyda had infused the proceedings with as much energy and emotional involvement for the viewer as he did with his strategy and execution of the finer, updated details.
As it stands, however, the story obviously still works, but whatís traditionally supposed to be an explosive, shocking and tragic ending arrives without much fanfare and goes out with more of a whimper than a memorable bang. Itís not a horrible flaw, but it does conclude this modern retelling in a weaker than expected fashion. Interesting, but certainly not brilliant, this latest version of "Hamlet" rates as a 6 out of 10.