Hamlet (Michael Almereyda's 2000 film)

What an interesting film! Almereyda has set Shakespeare's play in a modern urban landscape, such as New York City, where all the surfaces are smooth and slick. Young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is home from school and trying to come to terms with the changes in his family. Hamlet's father (Sam Shepherd) is dead and Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has not only taken over his brother's role as king and CEO of Denmark Corporation but has married Gertrude (Diane Venora) his brother's wife. Hamlet's bewilderment turns to anger after a visit from the ghost of his father and, absorbed by his own thoughts, he ignores his girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles) whose father Polonius (a restrained Bill Murray) and brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber) warn her to stay away from him.

It's surprising that I never tire of this play. As an usher at Center Stage in my teens, I saw it so many times that I had the entire play memorised. Since then I've seen many productions. I remember sitting in the theatre as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film started and thinking that I couldn't bear to sit through the whole thing again; I just knew it too well. I gathered my things and prepared to leave. Then the first scene started and I was hooked all over again.

Almereyda has streamlined the play but not updated the language, and I'm surprised by how well the familiar words work coming from men in business suits or young people in hoodies and baggy jeans. He's added some great visual tropes, such as presenting some of Hamlet's soliloquys as part of his video diary and having the ghost show up on a security camera.

Knowing the play as well as I do, I cannot judge if it is cut so much as to be confusing. The cuts go deep, but the well-chosen visuals, such as Hamlet with his bank of video screens, Ophelia jumping into the pool, and Polonius tying Ophelia's shoelaces, add to and clarify the story. I was a little disappointed that such a critical scene as the one with the gravedigger was cut and that Fortinbras is barely mentioned. Horatio preparing to tell Hamlet's story is the capstone of the play for me: “And let me speak to the yet unknowing world/How these things came about”.

But if this production makes anyone new to the play fall in love with the language and pursue it further, then the film is a success. I'll be satisfied if someone just recognises that the play is the source of so many sayings in common use today. Recently, Becky, a 20-year-old Londoner, posted on her tumblr blog a page from her moleskin notebook that she had filled with “Things We Say Today Which We Owe to Shakespeare”. It went viral and in only one week has gotten over 28,000 notes.

These words just don't go away. How shocking is it that a play written 410 years ago is still so relevant, so vital today! How resilient it is: cut, adapted, changed, its magic is undiminished.

This is my take-away from the film: the stories we tell matter. Our words, our stories will last far beyond our ephemeral lives.

I'm reminded of something Loren Eisely said in his memoir. Thinking about a book that changed his life, he wants to tell the long-dead author how much the man's book has meant to him. He says, “. . . all we are quickly vanishes. But still not quite. That is the wonder of words. They drift on and on beyond imagining.”

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