It sounds thumpingly pretentious. Modern-dress stage productions of Hamlet usually give me hives. So why should a fast, cheap and out-of-Hollywood-control film version be any better, even with Ethan Hawke playing Hamlet as a mopey Manhattan experimental filmmaker in love with an East Village Ophelia (Julia Stiles)? Two words: Michael Almereyda. From his first feature, Twister, in 1989, the director has shown a knack for twisting the familiar into provocative new shapes. He shot a 1992 short film. Another Girl Another Planet, with a toy Pixel camera from Fisher-Price. It looked great. Ditto Nadja, his black-and-white 1994 vampire flick. With Hamlet, Almereyda sets Shakespeare’s play in New York’s high-tech corridors of power, where Prada-garbed corporate bloodsuckers blab in iambic pentameter.
Don’t be scared off. Almereyda’s Hamlet is a visual knockout that sets the Bard’s words against striking images. “To be or not to be” is spoken by this Hamlet in a video store. He makes a film to “catch the conscience of the king” – in this case a media king, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), who killed Hamlet’s dad (Sam Shepard), married his mom, Gertrude (Diane Venora), and employs Ophelia’s father, Polonius (Bill Murray), as his spin doctor. Potent performers all, especially Murray, whose wicked line readings of Polonius’ fatherly advice to son Laertes (Liev Schreiber) – “To thine own self be true” – reveal sly sides to the character even the Bard never imagined. OK, there are times when this Hamlet plays like a college production done by the school’s smartass elite. But Almereyda knows what poetry is – in word and image. Thou wilt be dazzled.