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'Hamlet' takes Manhattan in new version with Ethan Hawke

Friday, July 14, 2000

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Talk about your product placements.


RATING: R for some violence.

STARRING: Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora

DIRECTOR: Michael Almereyda


CRITIC'S CALL: 3 stars


Glowing behind the ghost of Hamlet's father (Sam Shepard) is an illuminated Pepsi machine. When the apparition -- clad in a stylish black leather coat -- disappears, the Pepsi One plug remains. This "Hamlet," after all, is set in New York City in 2000, where limousines, laptops and Blockbuster video stores figure prominently.

Throw in a Laundromat, handgun, fax machines, an Ophelia who strews Polaroids of flowers instead of the real thing and a USA Today headline announcing the intentions of Fortinbras and you've got a handsome if abridged "Hamlet" for a new generation. Michael Almereyda has adapted Shakespeare's play and directed a soulful, sensitive Ethan Hawke in the title role.

But the play's still the thing, and while Almereyda has streamlined the story -- this is an hour and 50 minutes, not four hours as with Kenneth Branagh's version -- he has kept the timeless language and the aphorisms that are part of our everyday language.

"What a piece of work is a man ... Neither a borrower nor a lender be. ... To thine own self be true. ... To be, or not to be." Some of the more famous scenes or lines, such as Hamlet handling a skull and declaring, "Alas, poor Yorick" are represented by a movie clip, as if giving a silent nod to a scene that just didn't work here.

Don't expect modern lingo to match the modern dress and setting. A familiarity with the text, even from your high school English days or the 1990 movie starring Mel Gibson as the prince, will help. It may even be essential.

Almereyda has transplanted the story to modern-day Manhattan. The CEO of the multimedia Denmark Corp. has died, and his brother Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has married the none-too-grieving widow (Diane Venora). They canoodle in the back of a limousine while a wounded, troubled Hamlet burns with suspicions of foul play concerning his father's death.

Playing Ophelia to Hawke's Hamlet is the excellent young actress Julia Stiles, who dabbled with Shakespeare in "10 Things I Hate About You," a modern variation on "The Taming of the Shrew," and lived through the '60s in an NBC miniseries. Filling other key roles: Bill Murray is Polonius, Liev Schreiber is Laertes, Karl Geary is Horatio, and Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Hamlet sees his father's ghost -- on the balcony of his high-rise apartment -- and plots to bring to light the truth about his death. He does it not through a play but a film called "The Mousetrap," unveiled in a screening room.

Movies and videos are everywhere here: Cataclysmic fires and explosions always seem to occupy the TV screen. Hamlet replays images of the principals on his laptop and he toys with a gun on camera as he contemplates whether to be, or not to be. He revisits that theme while stalking an aisle in Blockbuster. It's labeled -- what else?-- "Action."

Just as Hawke puts a different stamp on his Hamlet, so does the director-screenwriter. He poses Ophelia against walls of water, makes much use of glass and mirrors and even has a bit of fun when three men squeeze into a cab and Eartha Kitt's recorded voice purrs a reminder to use the seat belts.

Almereyda has said he converted Denmark into a corporation because "global corporate power seems at least as treacherous and total as anything going in a well-oiled feudal empire." He uses all the brand names and assaults of the city to imprison Hamlet and emphasize the frailty of spiritual values in a material world.

I was willing to buy all of that. Zahn's portrayal of Rosencrantz, however, took me out of the movie. So did Bill Murray's Polonius. It's not his fault that listening to him deliver the Bard's lines only made me think of a "Saturday Night Live" skit. I could just imagine him counseling John Belushi and turning to an Ophelia played by a costume-clad Jane Curtin or Gilda Radner.

If it was difficult to buy Zahn and Murray, it was easy to watch Shepard, MacLachlan and Venora in their roles. They inhabit them with comfort and command. This "Hamlet," opening at the Manor and Denis, may not be one for the ages (if you're only going to watch one "Hamlet" in your lifetime, this isn't it) but it is one for 2000.

Almereyda acknowledges it's not the definitive interpretation, but something he calls "a collage, a cut-up, a collision of feelings and ideas." And that it is.

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