This morning I decided to check out Ethan Hawke in director Michael Almereyda’s 2000 adaptation of Hamlet. It’s a modern-day version set in New York City, where Denmark is a corporation the CEO of which has been murdered. Here are my disorganized impressions.
* This is heavily edited, as is usually the case for screen adaptations of Hamlet. That in itself is not surprising. However, there are a few elisions that struck me as especially significant for our interpretation of the text. First, Hamlet’s speech after he first sees the Ghost (beginning at roughly I.5.170) is dramatically shortened, leaving out the part where he informs Horatio that he may “put on an antic disposition” in the future. This has the effect of shifting emphasis from the question of Hamlet’s mental stability that is central to many performances of the text (certainly, the 1990 Zeffirelli version starring Mel Gibson grapples extensively with this question) to the observation of his obvious psychological disintegration. The play-within-a-play is also reduced, removing entirely the traveling troupe of players – instead, Hamlet shows the “court” a short film he’s made called The Mouse Trap. Once again, this stripping down of external factors foregrounds Hamlet and his deteriorating state of mind, making the story less plot-driven and more of a psychodrama.
* The other significant elision was of a simple line: “Madam, I wish it may.” Spoken by Ophelia to Gertrude (III.1.43) in response to Gertrude’s hope that Ophelia’s “good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness” before Ophelia is sent to provoke Hamlet by Gertrude, Claudius and Polonius, this line implicates Ophelia as at least somewhat agentive in the royal family’s machinations. Leaving it out casts her explicitly as a pawn, forced to conform to the will of others and powerless to work her own. I found this reading of Ophelia more persuasive than those I’ve seen before, which render her more childlike.
* I really like Ethan Hawke. I’ve liked him for years and I’ve seen him in a variety of films and I know he has range and can act. I feel this disclaimer to be necessary because he is just not very good in this. He’s mostly mopey and, later, unstable. And here’s the thing about Hamlet – it’s funny. It is clever as hell and features some of my favorite wordplay in all of Shakespeare, particularly in IV.3, when Claudius confronts Hamlet about Polonius’ murder. Hawke delivers his lines there – clever, witty stuff – like depressive insights, which I guess is consistent with his overall interpretation of the character but does not fit the material at all. (Seriously, if you can hear “he will stay ’till you come!” said about a dead body and not split your sides laughing … then you probably weren’t shown Hamlet a lot of times at a formative age, which really might be for the best when all is said and done.) The only scene where he shows any range is, strangely, III.2, when he approaches Ophelia at the viewing of The Mouse Trap. He’s sharp and energetic, and as a viewer you’re left wondering where this guy was for the other 105 minutes of film.
* Hawke also, and I’m sorry to say it, blows every single soliloquoy. This isn’t entirely his fault – for reasons known only to him, Almereyda staged the soliloquoys largely as voice-overs, rendering them toothless. I was especially struck by this choice because of my recent rewatch of Slings and Arrows, the brilliant Canadian TV show about a Shakespeare company (I should have a post on the show up sometime in the next few weeks). The first season of Slings & Arrows follows a production of Hamlet, and when its lead actor is paralyzed by the role, his director “reduces the role of Hamlet to its core elements to calm his overwhelmed actor. It’s six soliloquies, and the rest is filler. “Nail those six soliloquies, everyone goes home happy.”” In many ways it’s true – we watch a new version of Hamlet to see what the lead is going to make of “To be or not to be” and “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I.” We don’t get this opportunity with Hawke. It’s disappointing.
* The other performance I found thought-provoking was Julia Stiles as Ophelia. Stiles was 19 at the time of filming, but has had an older-than-her-years dignity and grace throughout her career, and let me lay my cards on the table: I adore her. I think she’s brilliant. I think she’s a generational talent and I am utterly baffled that she hasn’t had a bigger career. So, with that said – I am just not sure what she’s doing here. It’s good, don’t get me wrong. Stiles is really good at her job. But I didn’t feel like her performance came together until her final scene, Ophelia’s famous mental collapse. The confrontation between her and Hamlet (III.i, which I mentioned above, also known as the “Get thee to a nunnery” exchange) is also extremely well done. In particular, I love that rather than doing as the text does and hiding Polonius and Claudius offstage (and forcing the audience to decide if Hamlet knows they’re there or not, and therefore to whom he’s speaking throughout) the film makes Ophelia wear a wire. We know exactly to whom Hamlet is talking until he discovers the wire, and casting his building rage in that scene as a reaction to his beloved’s betrayal makes the whole thing make a lot more sense. I also appreciated the film’s approach to Ophelia’s characterization, which I discussed above: she’s a pawn, totally disempowered, but not at all naive. I found this more resonant and relatable than the usual portrayal of Ophelia as an easily led innocent child.
* The only person in this film who knows what to do with the language is Liev Schreiber (Laertes), which is in my experience standard in filmed Shakespeare adaptations. You’ll be watching along, thinking about performance and characterization and staging, not even noticing the language with which everyone is, you think, doing a serviceable job – and then someone waltzes in and opens their mouth and it is immediately clear that their command of the text is so superior that they are doing something utterly different from everyone else in the film. Brian Cox had this effect in Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus, and Schreiber does it here. It’s no surprise – he’s an accomplished Shakespearean actor (I saw his Henry V in Central Park in ’03 and it remains one of the theatrical high water marks of my life) – but it is sheer joy to hear him work with this text.
Overall, I enjoyed this version of Hamlet. As with nearly every adaptation of a beloved and familiar text, there were things I loved and things I didn’t like and things I found fascinating and things I found stupid. Which is why I continue to seek out adaptations of beloved and familiar texts. Have you seen this version of Hamlet? Do you have a favorite version? What do you think?