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Mr. Dithers: Ethan Hawke, like a long line of theatrical Danes before him, can't seem to make up his mind in 'Hamlet,' much to the chagrin of Ophelia (Julia Stiles).

Great Dane in the Morning

Michael Almereyda's new version of 'Hamlet' stands up to its predecessors

By Richard von Busack

USUALLY, WHAT MAKES Hamlet laughable is the sight of tights and puffy pants. Director Michael Almereyda end runs that guffaw with his modern-dress Hamlet, starring Ethan Hawke as a dithering Dane in street clothes. Unfortunately, Hawke's Hamlet persists in wearing a woven-yarn hat of some manufacture--Tibetan? Peruvian?--that would look funny on Telegraph Avenue. So clothes don't make the prince, though Almereyda's skeletonized version handily justifies itself, even though it follows Kenneth Branagh's complete Hamlet of 1996.

Hawke is young (30), but he looks younger. His Hamlet still indulges the habits of youth: jealousy, irresolution, a bad temper, a suspicion that his parents are plotting against him. Moreover, this Hamlet is apparently a blocked video artist whose troubles in creation are reflected in the most inspired moment in the film.

The scene: the famous soliloquy, staged inside a Blockbuster Video store. Hamlet wanders the aisles with "To be or not to be" intoned in voice-over. Shelves of fight-and-fright movies surround him, displayed under signs in huge letters reading "Action ... Action ... Action. Go home happy."

In an interview, Hawke explains the motivation: "You'd see the videos there, the space adventures, the men with pistols or rifles firing from a helicopter. Here's Hamlet's dilemma: action looks so easy, yet I feel so stuck. Not to mention that a lot of people have walked through a video store and wanted to kill themselves."

Hawke and Almereyda attended the San Francisco International Film Festival, where Hamlet was the closing-night feature. New York director Almereyda came to prominence with Nadja, a retelling of the Dracula story in the East Village. Hawke is the adroit, handsome lead in such neglected films as A Midnight Clear and Before Sunrise; he's also recently turned director with the movie Straight to One, which Hawke says "all takes place in one day [with] 35 different characters. It's loosely inspired by Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas."

Hawke recalls that his first exposure to Hamlet was drowsing through a school screening of Laurence Olivier's 1948 version. "I was always grateful for movies in the daytime, because it was a chance to sleep," he confesses. It wasn't until Hawke saw Chimes at Midnight, with Orson Welles as Falstaff, that he became interested in Shakespeare. Welles also provided an example for Almereyda, who notes, "I was inspired by his Macbeth, which was very exciting--[he] filmed it in 21 days on an RKO sound stage with no budget."

"The nice thing about it was that I hadn't played Hamlet before," Hawke interjects. "That helped me bring a lot of enthusiasm to the role. We tried not to fall under the weight of tradition, and we had a nice combination of experts and amateurs here."

Hawke adds, "I'd be lying if I didn't say this was the most challenging part I've done. It took about a year preparing for it, living with it, always talking about and reading the play. In the meantime, I got married [to actress Uma Thurman] and had a kid. People think you're a fool for even trying to make a production that had a new take on Hamlet. How many films have there been of Hamlet, 34?"

"I kept seeing variable figures," Almereyda replies. "The New York Times' fact checkers had to call me to ask, and we couldn't find a definite figure. I read that there were something like 19 silent versions. One of Edison's first films was Sarah Bernhardt's Hamlet. Now, if you count a film of a middle-aged woman with one leg, standing still, as a version of Hamlet ..."

Almereyda cites Jan Kott's book Shakespeare Our Contemporary as an aid to this production, but the director really modeled his film on Aki Kaurismaki's 1987 movie Hamlet Goes Business. The Finnish satirist's version, set in Helsinki's financial district, was an evil-comic take on the play, with uncle and son wrestling for the control of the world's leading rubber-duck company.

Still, original ideas abound in Almereyda's Hamlet, such as the Blockbuster soliloquy, which led some viewers to suspect a kind of product placement. There are more than a few beauty shots of Pepsi and Carlsberg beers (wasn't it Tuborg, though, that used to be advertised as the beer of Danish kings?).

"We've heard cynical asides about lining our pockets," Almereyda grumbles. "We had to pay Blockbuster, and we had to pay Pepsi. We wanted a film that was cluttered with logos, to make a corollary for Hamlet's own troubles. Hamlet's having his voice submerged, inundated with advertising, [which] gives strength to the phrase 'The rest is silence.' "

THE NEW Hamlet is strong in a few places where Branagh's version displayed weaknesses: the ghost scenes in Branagh's film suffered from embarrassing special effects. Shakespeare was canny when he decided not to try to build hell on his stage, leaving it to the audience's imagination instead.

Although Hawke doesn't have Branagh's monumental confidence, quickness and knowledge of the play, the rest of the cast is excellent. Kyle MacLachlan exudes handsome corruption as Claudius. Liev Schreiber, who played a very well-received Hamlet on the New York stage last year, makes a square, menacing Laertes. Schreiber plays his character as very much a cop type--he has a public humorlessness that you feel would never yield in private moments. He's the stodgy son of a stodgy father.

As that father, Polonius, Bill Murray is intermittently inspired. His unique obliviousness works best when it's aggressive and not passive. The best member of Almereyda's ensemble is Diane Venora, badly squandered in the movies like The Thirteenth Warrior and The Insider.

Venora has played both Gertrude and a female Hamlet in the New York theater. "She knew the play better than any of us," Almereyda says. "It was both enlightening and frustrating." When I interviewed him a few years ago, Branagh observed, "Gertrude is an underwritten part."

Venora, however, makes the queen the most understandable of all the characters. She's besotted with her Claudius. And there's an unusual twist at the end. Gertrude proves that she's not a ditherer like her son, taking a mother's quick, decisive action--the same kind of action she must have made to marry her husband's brother before the corpse of her first husband was cold.

Julia Stiles' Ophelia is a disaster, plain and simple. Stiles does what first-timers approaching Shakespeare always do when they can't make the lines fit in the mouth: she rages, she gibbers, she shrieks. Casting a waif as Ophelia looks right, but Stiles is abjectly lost.

Between Stiles the waif and Hawke the shoe-gazer, some might call Almereyda's Hamlet a Gen-X version, but I hope that doesn't happen. It's a fallacy, a destructive, alienating fallacy, that one human generation is different from another, more moral, more intelligent, more stupid, more selfish.

That's part of the greatness of Hamlet: it shows us how much we have in common with people from the 1600s. I went into Almereyda's Hamlet thinking that it was idiocy to make a new Hamlet when the definitive film version was fresh in the public memory. I came out thinking what I should have known in the first place: that there was no definitive film version, and thankfully, there never will be.

The beauty of Hamlet is how different facets of the play can be picked out in different versions. There's the Gothic mystery of the story in Olivier's 1948 adaptation; the expressionist take of Tony Richardson's 1969 film (shot in London's dark Roundhouse Theater, starring Nicol Williamson); the Zeffirelli version, which serves mostly as a vehicle for its star, Mel Gibson. Finally, Branagh's political version, in which the spying of King Claudius through his halls of one-way mirrors matches the fears of a century of totalitarianism.

How about a new film version of Hamlet every year, with each film's director learning or casting out ideas from the one before? None of these is to be addressed as "a Hamlet for a new generation," as if the great play were a soft drink. All the versions could be enjoyed and studied for new interpretations, new actors, new emphasis, new elisions that would show yet undiscovered sides of the grandest play in our language.

Hamlet (R; 111 min.), directed by Michael Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare, photographed by John de Borman and starring Ethan Hawke, Julia Stiles, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora and Bill Murray, opens Friday at Camera One in San Jose.

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From the May 25-31, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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