After hovering between life and death for well over a year, the Majestic Theatre is back at the job of providing Madison with artistically challenging films, and the first one is a doozy. Michael Almereyda's Hamlet is the kind of movie that makes culture vultures lick their chops--a bold reimagining of Shakespeare's tragedy set amid the corporate canyons of contemporary Manhattan. And although I don't agree with every choice Almereyda has made (who ever does when it comes to Hamlet productions?), I found the movie both extremely thought-provoking and highly relevant to the way we live now. Miraculously, Shakespeare still speaks to us 400 years later, but how long will that last in the age of television and video, faxes and voice-mail, PowerBooks and Palm Pilots, disks hard and floppy? If Hamlet was trapped in words, words, words, aren't we trapped in both words, words, words and images, images, images? Shakespeare had his play-within-the-play; Almereyda has his screen-within-the-screen. Just about every frame of the film contains a TV screen or a computer monitor or an LCD display, and the effect is disorienting, like a reflection of a reflection. When the ghost of Hamlet's father first appears, it's on closed-circuit TV. When Hamlet works up a production "to catch the conscience of the king," it's a film/video called The Mousetrap. Ophelia is now a photographer who, when she loses her sanity--descending into madness via the Guggenheim Museum's spiral ramp--distributes not flowers but Polaroids of flowers. For centuries, scholars have been arguing over why Hamlet doesn't act, why he hesitates to take a single step to avenge his father's death. Almereyda's explanation: He's lost in the media haze, the reflections of reflections. How can you take a step if you can't even see where to plant your foot? All of this would be just so much postmod posturing if Almereyda didn't dazzle us with what he puts on the screen, and dazzle he does, often. Hamlet's Manhattan is a gleaming jungle of granite, glass and steel, the skyscrapers like volcanoes about to blow. Wrapped in corporate chic, it's a movie of silvers, grays and blacks, of foyers and atriums and stretch limousines. And although it's based in the Hotel Elsinore, where the new "King and CEO of Denmark Corp." has set up camp, it roams all over the island--uptown, downtown, in laundromats and penthouse swimming pools. Rarely has Manhattan looked quite so coldly sleek, except perhaps in American Psycho, which could easily be taking place one block over. Almereyda shot fast and cheap, in Super 16 millimeter, and what the images lack in crispness they make up for in sheer density, the fuzziness contributing to our sense of Hamlet's own fuzziness. You'll notice that I haven't mentioned any of the actors yet. That's because I found them the least interesting part of the movie. Ethan Hawke plays Hamlet, and it almost seems beside the point to call it a good or bad performance, so obscured is it by Almereyda's collage barrage. There were points where I could barely hear Hawke, let alone make out what he was saying, and I'm not sure it's supposed to be that way. (The soundtrack can be pretty muddy, especially during the exterior scenes.) Faced with one of the most difficult roles in all of theater, Hawke gives it what I'd call the old college try; he's definitely graduated from Dead Poets Society. But the performance never takes off, doesn't achieve a life of its own. Perhaps at Almereyda's urging, Hawke throws away many of his lines, drops others and hurls some across the room. The presence of James Dean on one of those video monitors suggests it's a form of Method madness. Hawke is reportedly the youngest English-speaking actor to tackle the role on screen (finally, a Hamlet who's played by someone who's Hamlet's age), and he emphasizes his youth by sporting one of those knit skullcaps and the faintest whispers of a goatee. This is a callow Hamlet, a sallow Hamlet (he hasn't been getting much sun) and, yes, a shallow Hamlet, a spoiled brat who can't even be bothered to put on an antic disposition. Instead of being cruel to be kind, he's just cruel. I didn't really mind that Hawke's Hamlet never smiles, never laughs, just broods--he is supposed to be depressed--but it nevertheless diminishes this exuberantly complex character. When Hamlet says "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world," he's supposed to be at least half-lying to us or to himself. But this Hamlet's world really is weary, stale and flat, as flat as a television screen. Of the rest of the cast, Sam Shepard fares the best--a surprise, since Shepard is often quite wooden as an actor. But he's playing the ghost of Hamlet's father, and wooden can come in pretty handy when you're supposed to be dead. Plus, Shepard lights the wood on fire this time, spitting out his lines in a Scottish burr. As Claudius, the pretender to the throne, Kyle MacLachlan is particularly well cast, his just-this-side-of-bland handsomeness signifying corporate power. And Diane Venora makes a fine Gertrude, although the role's even more truncated than usual. But Julia Stiles, as Ophelia, manages to both under- and overemote. And Bill Murray, whether on purpose or not, gives the role of Polonius such bizarrely comic line readings as to qualify for the Reduced Shakespeare Company's next Hamlet spoof. Finally, Liev Schreiber's Laertes suggests the kind of classical training that wasn't sought in the other actors. How about Schreiber as Hamlet? Just a thought, given that he recently played the role on stage. But I don't think that's the Hamlet, or the Hamlet, that Almereyda was after. He wanted an audiovisual Hamlet, and he was willing to cut quite a bit of text to get it. I often wonder why, when directors cut half of Shakespeare's text, they don't cut the other half as well. Why use it at all? If anything, words seem to get in the way of Almereyda's Hamlet, as they did in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet. Luhrmann kept the words because they gave his glorified music-video a high-gloss patina, a suggestion of "art." Why has Almereyda kept them? Couldn't the dialogue be translated into corporatese and work better? It would lose the poetry, no doubt, but it wouldn't necessarily lose the depth and complexity--the meaning. Then again, Almereyda may have a new meaning in mind, one that's held together by what he recently called, in the New York Times, "a patchwork of intuitions, images and ideas."
Laurence Olivier called his 1948 film version, which was also quite condensed, "an essay on Hamlet." I'd call Almereyda's version "a photo essay on Hamlet." And when the photos link up with the text in the right ways, it can be quite illuminating. For example, Hawke delivers the famous "To be or not to be" speech while wandering through the Action aisle at a Blockbuster outlet, video monitors blaring in the background while a sign with the chain's motto, "Go Home Happy," mocks the melancholy Dane. This is not only a great joke--action being the one thing Hamlet's not capable of--but an insight into what keeps us from doing what needs to be done these days. If Hamlet was the first person to feel modern doubt, we're among the first persons to feel postmodern doubt, that uneasy sense of reality slipping into virtual reality. To be on TV or not to be on TV--today, that's the question.