There is great fun in the sight of Hamlet’s fax rolling off the machine, of Horatio and Hamlet driving in from the airport, of Hamlet’s apartment wall of family pictures.

HAMLET

An Illusion review by Joan Ellis


               If your idea of a great evening does not include watching Hamlet unfold amidst the stark glass skyscrapers of today’s Manhattan, you may want to reconsider.  The net effect of the classic play in modern dress is that the beauty of the language rings in our ears.  Already familiar with the culture of contemporary Manhattan, we are not distracted; we listen, and the play becomes startlingly accessible.  

The crimes most foul in this contemporary corporate drama are accompanied by Shakespeare’s words—cut, perhaps, but not changed.  Nobody messed with this script.  Little needs to be done to Americanize the play.  The prologue reminds us that the king of Denmark is dead, that his younger brother has become king, that the king’s widow has married his brother, and that the king’s son Hamlet has returned from school suspecting foul play.  The only necessary change:  Denmark becomes The Denmark Corporation.  That single modification picks up a universal theme and drops it firmly into the American vernacular. 

                Ethan Hawke conveys Hamlet’s melancholy by talking quietly under a furrowed brow and knitted ski cap, tie strings dangling, that makes it hard to take him seriously.  As the young couple being damaged by their parents, he and Ophelia (Julia Stiles) are reactive and quiet in an otherwise terrific cast that deals with the turmoil.

                Bill Murray, in slacks and blue blazer, and with fine innovation, plays Polonius as a world-weary veteran of life who can be surprised by nothing.  He invests Polonius, father of Laertes (Liev Schreiber) and Ophelia, with a range of emotional experience just right for then and now. 

                Diane Venora’s Gertrude is a self-absorbed neurotic just right for her lines and actions.  Kyle MacLachlan’ king is merrily malevolent.  Karl Geary is Horatio, the loyal friend so needed by a public player, be it a royal or a corporate family.  Rosencranz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman), playing along with Hamlet in contemporary chin and lip stubble remain the messengers of betrayal no one needs in any life.  Watch for them to enter as Hamlet, silhouetted against the bright whirling clothes of the Laundromat, washes away the blood of his crime.   

                The real star of this show, standing in full-blown beauty next to Shakespeare’s words, is Manhattan.  Designed and filmed by John de Borman and Gideon Ponte, directed by Michael Almereyda, the city shots pull actors and location together in an extravaganza of visual drama.  Times Square, screening rooms, pools, penthouses-- rectangles and glass shot from odd angles—loom over Manhattan while the Guggenheim jumps to life as the action unfolds on its ramps.   

There is great fun in the sight of Hamlet’s fax rolling off the machine, of Horatio and Hamlet driving in from the airport, of Hamlet’s apartment wall of family pictures.  Full of irony and visual delight, the movie brings Shakespeare’s tale of violence and betrayal to a modern America familiar with the theme.  Before long we’ll be claiming him as one of our own.   


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