Grade: C-

“A miss! A very palpable miss!” Shakespeare’s Osric might
exclaim if he were to see Michael Almereyda’s modern adaptation
of the Bard’s most-famous (and probably most-filmed) tragedy.
Almereyda’s script retains much of the text of the play, but
tranfers the action to contemporary Manhattan, where the
characters recite their well-known lines in the corridors of
gleaming skyscrapers, the interiors of shiny limos, the
cabins of cruising airliners, the vestibule of the Guggenheim
Museum, and even the aisles of a Blockbuster store–to
mention only a few of the apparently unlikely locales for the
verse to sing out.

But it isn’t the incongruousness of the setting that undoes this
prince of Denmark (corporation), nor the insistent intrusions
of modern culture–the incessantly flickering video monitors,
for example, which mark the protagonist’s transformation into
an aspiring filmmaker (he confronts his recently-married mother
and uncle with their crime not by sponsoring the performance
of a play, but by screening his latest effort for them). At
times, in fact, these contemporary rethinkings are quite
effective, or at least amusing, as when Hamlet seals the
fate of Rosenscrantz and Guildenstern by retyping his own
death warrant on a laptop computer, or when the ghost of the
late king (here CEO, I suppose) materializes and disappears on
the patios of luxurious high-rise apartments. Despite some
miscalculations–the insertion of a video of a Buddhist monk
expounding on the meaning of the verb “to be” some time before
Hamlet delivers his greatest soliloquy is the clearest instance,
although the concluding duel seems not only badly-staged but
anachronistic in this context–for the most part the play works
decently enough in modern dress, even if it hasn’t been as
successfully re-imagined in those terms as “Richard III” was in
Ian McKellan’s dazzling 1995 film.

No, what dooms this “Hamlet” to mediocrity is the quality of
the acting, especially in the leads, and the general slowness
and turgidity of the proceedings. Ethan Hawke certainly
broods well, but he does that in virtually every picture he
makes; his Hamlet seems little more than a sullen, empty-
headed bore, and his line readings are flat and wooden. (It
doesn’t help that he’s dressed perpetually in black and
occasionally dons a stocking cap that looks simply ridiculous.)
Julia Stiles is lovely as Ophelia, but the verse seems
beyond her. Kyle MacLachlan and Diane Venora are solid as
Claudius and Gertrude, and Bill Murray, of all people, takes
a rather admirable stab at Polonius, trying to give a bemused
version of the dialogue while avoiding a simply clownish
interpretation. Even better is Sam Shepard, who is a powerful
presence as the Ghost; his curious combination of rugged
strength and half-emaciation is visually perfect, and he
speaks the words well. But Liev Schreiber makes for an
irritating Laertes, and Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman don’t
raise Rosenkrantz and Guilderstern beyond the status of
buffoonish dullards. (Happily, the gravedigger scene has
been jettisoned, so poor Yorick has lost his close-up.)

Perhaps the cast could have made more of an impression had
Almereyda shown greater directorial energy and poise, but the
surprising fact is that, apart from the modern trappings,
his is an extremely conventional, even cautious reading of the
play, unvaryingly solemn and gloomy when it isn’t simply
unfocused. Despite its occasional strengths, therefore, it
really can’t hold a candle to Olivier’s filmization, or even to
the more gargantuan treatment of Kenneth Branagh (though that
too suffered from some poor casting, even if only in small
cameos by a few out-of-place Hollywood stars). And at least
it doesn’t descend to the level of abysmal desecration reached
by that other recent modernization of a Shakespearean text,
Buz Luhrmann’s appalling 1996 “Romeo + Juliet.”