Redoing Shakespeare in modern dress may not be an original idea but when it works it's certainly worth it as the popularity of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo And Juliet showed. My guess is that this was a pitch along the lines of "Think Hamlet via Luhrmann with Julia Stiles", since that looks to be the template for the film. Not that it is a bad starting point.

It is the year 2000 in New York "the King and CEO of Denmark Corp." has died under mysterious circumstances. The queen (Dian Venora) has remarried her brother-in-law Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) rather hastily and Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), her son ain't happy.

Copy picture

We know this because, as well as brooding artistically, he sits there unshaven and scruffy making video installations about how troubled a lad he is. Also wearing a designer-miserable look is his love Ophelia (Julia Stiles), complete with kooky hairdo and combat trousers 'cos she's very cool and modern (or something like that).

They inhabit a world of camcorders, DVD players and all kinds of gadgetry possible - these guys are really, really modern, and don't you forget it!

Mercifully this obsession with new technology does wane as the pace speeds up about half way through the film, although it never quite shakes it off.

Hawke makes a reasonable Hamlet though the director's choice of sticking mostly to the original Shakespearian English renders many of the speeches indecipherable. The actors (or director) clearly only have half a clue what they're saying.

It's a problem for Stiles as well though she copes better as her physical skills bring across most of her dialogue. Surprisingly, it is her on-screen father (Bill Murray) who grapples best with the language, though I find it odd that directors are so very keen to stick to the original texts - for something like Romeo And Juliet the plot is simple and the language highly poetic, making it less of a problem, but Hamlet is complex and would lose none of its potency if truly adapted properly (it would also lose those legendary lines that, whilst brilliant, are distractingly familiar and stand out a mile as THE BIG LINES that the actors have rehearsed more than any others).

It would certainly sit better with the less experienced actors and the present day New York setting if partially updated to modern speech since Shakespeare always wrote to appeal to his whole audience not just the more educated fans.

Speaking of which, the choice of Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman - Uma's brother) is interesting. Zahn is great and the pair just about convince as does Liev Schreiber as Laertes, though his face is so familiar from Scream it may prejudice your opinion of his character if you've never seen or studied the play before.

Kyle MacLachlan does slimy in his sleep, so works perfectly as shady Claudius (he looks particularly impressive if, like me, the last film you saw him in was joyously dreadful Showgirls!) whilst Sam Shepard makes one hell of a ghost with his furrowed brow and enigmatic delivery.

The film looks beautiful with striking cinematography bolstered by some excellent locations. This is backed up by a formidable soundtrack from Carter Burwell, ranging from Mahler to modern gritty indie music, though as good as this is it does distract from the setting as it's always there, silencing any real noises of New York.

When this combines with the heavy use of voice-over for speeches the film becomes strenuous to watch and rings untrue to anybody whose remotely familiar with New York where the idea of silence is ridiculous - yet at no point do we hear any real sounds of the city (I appreciate the effect of occasional silences for dramatic purposes but this may as well be a highly artificial computer rendering of the city so little is reality called upon).

I can only presume the film spent months in post-production because it seems unfeasible that you could block background noise out of every shot whilst making the film entirely on location.

Director Michael Almereyda plays too safe to be the next Baz Luhrmann whilst falling short of being a respectable traditionalist. That the film makes Michael Bogdanov's 1998 attempt at filming Macbeth on a housing estate look infinitely more challanging is a pity since that had little of the money, famous faces or technical talent that clearly went into this neither particularly inspiring nor particularly bad effort.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2001
Share this with others on...
Hamlet packshot
Modern re-examination of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark.
Amazon link

Read more Hamlet reviews:

Angus Wolfe Murray ***

Director: Michael Almereyda

Writer: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Bill Murray, Karl Geary, Steve Zahn, Sam Shepard

Year: 2000

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US,


Search database:

If you like this, try:

10 Things I Hate About You