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Click for full sized poster

Hamlet

Starring Ethan Hawke
Based on the play by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by Michael Almereyda
website: www.miramax.com

IN SHORT: Shakespeare, minus all the drama [Rated R, 102 minutes]

The reason William Shakespeare is described as the greatest playwright ever is that his stories stand the test of time, both in their original form and in any derivative adaptation. Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story or King Lear as The Lion King, for example. The difficulty lie in the language, five centuries old, which is hard enough for a modern actor to get his tongue around and the sheer length of each play, hours of screen almost begging for an adaptation which shaves the fat. You can take a hammer to Shakespeare and not hurt the basic story, if you know what you're doing. Director Michael Almereyda's Hamlet takes a mallet the size of a small state to the Bard, mutilating famous soliloquies and utterly stripping the drama out of one of the bloodiest finales ever to get the stage sticky with fake blood.

That last sentence assumes you have a vestigial remembrance of the last scene of Hamlet. If you are utterly new to the work, you will be utterly lost by the time it ends.

The concept for this adaptation, moving it into modern times and restructuring the monarchy as a corporation, is intriguing to say the least. In this version, a hostile takeover within New York's Denmark Corporation has left its CEO (Sam Shepard) dead, his brother Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) in charge and married to the primary shareholder of the corporation, Gertrude (Diane Venora) -- I'm guessing about the stock. One of the failings of the adaptation is that it ignores all the cultural and legal developments of the last half millennium. None of this sits well with pasty face Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a university student who is majoring in video production and will use his skills to try to bring his uncle down.

Hamlet is also obsessed with the lovely Ophelia (Julia Stiles), sister of his friend Laertes (Liev Schreiber). Both of them are kidlets of the "prattling fool" corporate Yes Man Polonius (Bill Murray). As Hamlet's behavior becomes more erratic, "mad" if you will, Claudius employs other pals Rosencrantz and Gildenstern (Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman) to keep an eye on him. Murder, Madness and Suicide will all work their way into the story 'cuz Shakespeare was good at that but the adaptation strips the story of all of its power. All the while, the Ghost of Hamlet's dad appears to counsel his son and, thankfully, recap what's been going on so that the audience can follow along.

That almost saves the day. While the brain can usually pierce the veil of time and follow the path of the language if the actor's delivery is good, none of the ones in this version of Hamlet are. Shepard's expository speeches don't click until a third of the way through. Murray and MacLachlan's don't seem to properly jibe with their new corporate clothes and Hawke is undermined by the concept. The New York City background becomes more of a player than the principals.

Almereyda is so determined to work modern technology into every scene that, in the most grievous example, the world famous "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy is presented on videotape, Hamlet with a gun in his mouth (just in case you're a completely ignorant git) and those six words rewound and replayed twice more before the script moves on. Lest you sit there thinking "huh??!" as I did, the rest of the soliloquy shows up later, recited in the aisles of a Blockbuster store. I'll let those who prefer a perfect Bard scream about chopping and reordering the text, I take the position that the flick should be clear as a bell first time out, so I can't complain about the text being out of "correct" position. All I know is what I know and, even as little as I do know about Hamlet having seen it less than half a dozen times, I know that this version bites mightily.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Hamlet, he would have paid...

$2.00

Mid-week rental level, specifically for those who know Shakespeare up and down. You may derive more satisfaction than I did from the adaptation. My concern is with the folk who walk in unknowing, who will walk out the same way.

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