Published April 1, 2000
Michael Almereyda’s extremely hip film version of Hamlet could have given us a cogent reading of the play, if not necessarily exactly what it deserves. Some important critics, starting from the undoubted fact that Hamlet is a difficult and sometimes nasty character, a royal pain in the Elsinore, have gone on to conclude that the murderer Claudius is the play’s real hero. John Updike’s new novel, Gertrude and Claudius is based on the same premiss. At first it seems that Almereyda is taking the play in some such direction by emphasizing the most unsatisfactory aspects of Hamlet’s character: his rudeness, his self-centeredness, his narcissism (he is rarely without his video camera) and the related tendency to self-dramatization which results in madcap moments embarrassing to everyone around him.
Moreover, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) is presented a dynamic leader of Denmark Inc, a multinational corporation based in New York. At the opening news-conference, where Hamlet skulks as he does in Shakespeare’s Act I, Scene 2, only now with his camcorder, Denmark’s new c.e.o. wins applause by ripping up the business section of USA Today whose headline announces a possible takeover bid from Fortinbras. “So much for him.” Claudius and Gertrude (Diane Venora) make an attractive couple and are obviously very much in love. Both the contemporary setting and the view of Hamlet as a spoiled rich kid filled with vague and unfocused resentment against his successful and admired stepfather could be seen as true to Shakespeare’s intentions.
But it will soon dawn on the viewer that Almereyda is not attempting to tell us anything interesting about the play. Instead, he only means to use it as an excuse to lead onto the stage once again one of the movies’ favorite show-horses, the moody, melancholy teen who, with the popularity of Holden Caulfield and James Dean, became an American national icon in the 1950s. This by-now antiquated young rebel-without-a-cause in Ethan Hawke’s performance is even more annoying than usual because of the political sub-text, which seems to make his grievance against his uncle less that he murdered his father and more that he’s rich and a corporate chieftain, probably chopping down rain-forests right and left. One can easily imagine this Hamlet among the Seattle protesters against the WTO.
As Mr Hawke plays him, Hamlet is a sort of fossil hippie, only truculent and annoying to those over 30 (naturally, his own age, given by Shakespeare as 30, is not mentioned). This makes him and Ophelia (Julia Stiles) into co-conspirators against the alliance of Claudius-Gertrude and her father, Polonius (Bill Murry). Accordingly, he does not appear here, as he does in the play, in Ophelia’s closet pretending to be mad (or perhaps being mad). On the contrary, he gives her a kiss instead. His soppy love-letters are the true expression of his feelings—and his sensibility. When Polonius says to Claudius of the letter that “this in obedience hath my daughter shown me,” he is obviously lying, as Ophelia attempts to snatch it back from him.
Mr. Murray is in many ways an admirable actor, but he is not suited to the portrayal of such a thuggish tyrant—who is in any case completely un-Shakespearean. The scene in which he is presented as manhandling his daughter, not without a hint of the sexually abusive father, in order to make her “wear a wire” against her will during the “nunnery” scene and so entrap Hamlet would be impossible for any actor to bring off. It is only when Hamlet discovers the recording device in the process of giving her a shoulder massage, that he stops being nice to her—and the manner of her death emphasizes that it is his withdrawal of affection and not her father’s death which drives her to madness and suicide.
In other words, all else in this version of the play is sacrificed for the sake of the favored myths of the youth culture. As if to advertise what buttons he is trying to press, Almereyda has Mr. Hawke not only surrounded by images of James Dean, Che Guevara and Malcolm X but wearing for much of the film what might have been Holden Caulfield’s famous hunting cap. Like Holden, this Hamlet is a pathologically sensitive, too-good-for-this world type without any of the textual Hamlet’s bloodthirstiness or savage self-criticism. Or any of his Shakespearean humor or moments of self-detachment. Even the gravedigger scene is cut, lest it interfere with the pathos of doomed youth.
Also because of the political sub-text, which we might call the Seattle dimension, Gertrude (Diane Venora) is a curiously muted character. The evil corporation is clearly patriarchal, and Gertrude’s implication in Claudius’s evil is thus played down if not completely eliminated. This means that the whole Freudian suggestion of which the last century made so much during the scene between Hamlet and Gertrude in her closet is quite absent, and her love for Hamlet finally proven as, instead of by accident she deliberately drinks the poison to save his life. Here “come, let me wipe thy face” is said as she is dying, an act of final, and emphatically maternal, tenderness towards him which suggests that she has long since chosen loyalty to Hamlet over her love for “the bloat king.”
One could go on. Of course the shockingly disregard for the pronunciation of the verse is only what we should expect from a production so untrue to Shakespeare in other ways. And by the end the political gimmickry—as when the “what a piece of work is a man” speech is taken out of its context and put as a voiceover at the beginning to the accompaniment of video images of bombers dropping bombs—becomes gimmickry for its own sake. The “now might I do it pat” scene takes place as Hamlet chauffeurs Claudius’s limousine (Claudius does not notice), but the episode becomes pointless since Hamlet’s reasoning in sparing him here (so that he will go to hell and not to heaven) is omitted. Presumably it would not be understood.
Yet mention of Ophelia’s “chaste treasure” and the fact that Laertes (Liev Schreiber) would “dare damnation” to kill Hamlet are left in. We know what these words meant to Shakespeare, and to his audience, and to most of those who have seen the play from his day to our own. But what (if anything) do they mean to Almeyrda or the tremendously up-to-date figures he makes of Shakespeare’s characters? No one ever bothers to tell us. The words, like the play itself, are presumably mere ornaments for the egos of the director and his altogether hip Hamlet.