May 18–25, 2000

movies

A Dane in Pain

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Shades of deception: Hawke’s Hamlet and Stiles’ Ophelia

Ethan Hawke’s broody Hamlet has some serious issues.

by Cindy Fuchs

Hamlet

Directed by Michael Almereyda
A Miramax release
Opens Friday at Ritz Five
Recommended

I confess to feeling a certain dread when I first heard that Ethan (“I have this planet of regret”) Hawke was starring in Michael Almereyda’s updated-and-abbreviated Hamlet. But after a few minutes of watching Hawke’s scruffy, way-too-weary face, you get the feeling that he is not just a good choice for the part, but an ideal one. Small, sad and fretful, Hawke’s Hamlet is by turns restless and distrustful, a corporate scion and latchkey kid turned aspiring filmmaker, with insomniac-red eyes and a feeling that someone’s watching him.

Shuffling and slouching, unconvincingly hipster-cool in his Peruvian knit cap and baggy jacket, this perpetual college student sullenly recites those famous soliloquies in his bedroom while peering at computer screens and digital video monitors, and — most appropriately — in the neighborhood Blockbuster. Searching the “Action” stacks for a passing distraction, his thoughts are not so surprising: “To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub.”

The film opens as he’s making yet another of his confessional videos — wondering whether to be or not — in which his grainy black-and-white features seem as out of joint as the time he’s got to put right. Vexed by his father’s vengeful ghost (Sam Shepard, craggy and glum), Hamlet’s taken to wandering the nighttime streets. Grim, glassy buildings loom over him, several owned by his family’s Denmark Corporation, now run by his Uncle Claudius (a perfectly stiff Kyle MacLachlan), new husband to Hamlet’s widowed mom Gertrude (Diane Venora, who played Hamlet in Joe Papp’s NY Shakespeare Festival). It’s not a little upsetting that the new arrangement has turned her all cooey and sexed up; clearly, uncle’s taking care of her in ways that dad didn’t quite. And of course, all this domestic drama is piled on top of Hamlet’s own young male self-image issues. He’s got this sorta girlfriend named Ophelia (Julia Stiles), who dresses club-kid style, in huge-wide jeans and cute little tops, and tends to hang around fountains and swimming pools.

Besides being adorable and moony, Ophelia is beguilingly intelligent, poetic and naive, all of which makes her the exemplary muse for this wannabe artist. Like Hamlet, she’s not sure what or whom to believe: Her suck-up dad Polonius (Bill Murray) and upright brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber) warn her to steer clear of her maybe-beau, which only makes him seem more like a good idea. No one is more horrified than she is when Hamlet discovers the microphone Polonius has affixed to her body in order to discover and record Hamlet’s plot against the bossman Claudius: In this moment, in Ophelia’s visible heartbreak and fright, the film’s interest in abusive fathers (and father-figures) is all too plain. These kids are screwed, and not just because Hamlet’s not making a decision he can stick with.

Selfish parents are always wrecking their children’s lives in Shakespeare, demanding unreasonable liaisons and loyalties. Certainly, this is the most emphatic point made by Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and one of the film’s most galvanizing points for young viewers’ identification and comprehension. Almereyda’s movie will have a similar effect: Kids will “get” the language as it’s spoken and the themes — the ambition, paranoia, responsibility and fearfulness that come with growing up — will resonate for them.

This Hamlet is not so grandly explosive or cartoony as Luhrmann’s movie, and it’s certainly not so narcissistic or literal as Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. Rather, Almereyda (who made the lovely-creepy Nadja in 1994) has focused on the play’s relentless interiority in a way that makes it, perhaps paradoxically, all about surfaces. Claudius is most obviously concerned with appearances (Hamlet’s experimental and accusatory film, “The Mousetrap,” sends him into an evident panic), but everyone in this mercenary universe believes in the power of images and the righteousness of paranoia: The Ghost makes theatrical entrances and exits (using Pepsi machines and smoky effects); the gravedigger (Jeffrey Wright) sings a few bars of “All Along the Watchtower;” and consummate corporate wife Gertrude is ever ready for public display, her face always on. Though the hyper-self-conscious Hamlet will never fathom this survival strategy — the performance of everyday life — it’s an insight that Almereyda’s film comes to with remarkable integrity and visual poetry, at once skeptical and respectful of commercial culture.