Monday, May 16, 2005
Hamlet played by Ethan Hawke
Directed by Michael Almereyda
When this version of the play was announced in the late nineties there was total apathy, especially from me. What was the point in revisiting the work so close in time to Branagh's definitive version? The answer was fairly obvious -- this was in the middle of the sudden craze for adaptations of Shakespeare plays for young people, sparked by Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet through Ten Things I Hate About You ending with O. When I heard it was to be set in the millenial New York I was vaguely interested in what would be done with it. Especially since the play is set in Denmark. When I read the cast list and was very excited. Not quite as remarkable as Branagh's but one name jumped out at me.
Polonius ..... Bill Murray
What? Bill Murray doing Shakespeare? Peter Venkman? Phil Connors? Playing Polonius? Genius. What was he going to do with the role?
I'm first in line the day the film opened and the only person in the auditorium for that showing. The reviews had been mixed. This wasn't going to be a massive opening in the UK. The film opens unconventionally with some title cards getting the audience up to speed about the death of Hamlet Sr, establishing shot of Hamlet entering Hotel Elsinore, then scraps of the big speeches played out in the screen of a portable video player ('What a piece of work is a man...'). Title card. Then a press conference in which the King talks on the marriage to his sister-in-law and the takeover plans of the Denmark Corporation by one Fortinbras.
And there he is. Bill. Grinning on the front row, oblivious of mischief making between Ophelia and Hamlet. He gives an entirely uncharacteristic woop and then grins right through into the next scene. He looks, uncomfortable. He looks much like I do in a suit. This next scene in which Laertes offers his intention to leave, Bill gets to use some words and it just sounds wrong. Distracted. Given that all he's saying is that his son wants to leave the country he's about as convincing as I am when I say I'm happy.
When I saw this, I just started laughing. I couldn't help myself. It was more from shock than anything else. Here was one of my favourite actors giving one of the itchiest, gottlestopped performances I'd ever seen, jumping headlong into the hands of writers who say (wrongly) that Americans can't do Shakespeare. So it continues through scene after scene, at no point does he look like he could be Ophelia's dad. There's just no chemistry. Man can act with an elephant, gets acted off the screen by Julia Styles. I actually missed his death scene on that first screening because I went to the toilet to get away from him (which meant the film at that point was playing to no one -- which has the philosophical ring of trees falling in woods making sounds). It clouded my entire impression of the whole film - I just wanted to go home.
Which is a shame, because watching again tonight there is so much else to enjoy. The length, for example. This is a very lean Hamlet, just 106 mins including credits. It replaces much of the verbal poetry with imagery, scenes reduced to the most important, minimalist characters such as Osric lost, replaced by props such as fax machines and mobile phones. Considering the chopping about of the text, the story doesn't lose any clarity, and in fact it gives characters very clear motivations -- Gertrude takes the poison at the end in a vain attempt to save her son's life, rather than as an accident. I don't remember seeing that before. It's also free and easy with the iconic scenes -- we see the grave digger singing 'There must be some kind of way out of here...' but don't stop off for any skullplay.
Which is one of the jarring elements of the film. Shakespearean language intermingles with a modern English of song and advert and iconography. In the silliest of moments, Hamlet and 'friends' jump in the back of a taxi to be met by the voice of Eartha Kitt purringly asking them put on their seat belt. I suppose the intention was to do the opposite of Baz, but it has the effect of making the viewer wonder how the characters communicate with people who aren't characters in the play...
"Hello Domino Pizza?"
"I have a task which I must entrust you to execute with great speed."
"Err ... OK ... "
"Upon this application I do note an elixir of such sweetness that twixt my lips ... "
"Excuse me sir, did you wanna order a pizza?"
"One moment. I must call up my faculties before I ..."
That said it is amusing to see Claudius leaving a limo and stepping towards a theatre playing the stage version of The Lion King, and Hamlet watching the classic Gielgud, interpretation of the role from when he must have been Hawke's age.
Which is a good time to jump in and talk about Ethan Hawke. The choice here seems to be angsty twenty-something (which is about were Hawke at the time). He spends much of the film in introspection, talking to himself or his camcorder. He's entirely misunderstood, and far from being mad, he's a man with a plan. It's actually, for me, cleverly understated, about the anger which bubbles underneath after the death of a relative. He's more of a straight up hero, even after he kills Bill. Sorry Polonius. But all of the performances run against the typical grain of their characters, although as I said before, given the cuts, the real credit is were a mark is made given the fewest of scenes, so hats off to Liev Schrieber. Worth mentioning too is Steve Zahn's Rosencrantz -- talk about creating a character from nothing.
What's most interesting is that after a choppy beginning, once the film settles into a rhythm of playing out whole chunks of the play, in order, it really begins to engross. It does that almost impossible things of being emotional and engrossing even to someone who is becoming increasingly familiar with the work. Considering that setting, it's a surprise that the Ghost of Hamlet Sr (played touchingly by Sam Shepherd) is here at all and not replaced by a VHS from beyond the grave -- but there he is in all his spectral glory. The action of the end of the play is rewritten to amazing and shocking effect, entirely in-keeping with the setting of this version and just as experimental as the rest of it. I'm increasingly seeing how flexible this work is.
I watched the dvd of this film on the 16th May 2005.