Shakespeare Series #8:
“Hamlet” (2000) directed by Michael Almereyda is so ambitious and bizarre that one can’t help but to be impressed at the undertaking, no matter the actual result. It is an existential rabbit hole that is a year 2000 capsule in time in every imaginable way. There were likely aspects of this film that expected to be timeless and contemporary that quickly aged out as technology rapidly changed in the past two decades, as well as other tells like the Blockbuster store and the JNCO jeans.
The film stars a young Ethan Hawke as Hamlet, alongside Julia Stiles, Bill Murray, Sam Shepard, Kyle McLachlan and Diane Venora (who is also Lady Capulet in “Romeo + Juliet”). It was not particularly enjoyable to watch, but there is a lot to appreciate about the film, especially the decision to keep the original language verbatim instead of building a modernized script. It is dark, chaotic, and so very Shakespeare.
Mistakes Were Made:
- The performances were outstanding. Ethan Hawke has never been more hideous and unattractive as an increasingly unhinged entitled film student (the precursor to the modern Incel?) who leans into his obsessive tendencies so fully that he falls into the tragic demise of abuse and self-destruction. He is almost unwatchable because of how evil he feels. Julia Stiles is also better in this than she had been in the others, as a performer, and her appearance is notable. She is glowing throughout, as she seems slightly older and more grown than her previous two roles in “10 Things I Hate About You” and “O.”
- Ethan Hawke wandering through this Blockbuster having an existential crisis in a knitted hat is very relatable even without Blockbuster.
- The meta film within a film, “King of Denmark” is a fantastic Jean Luc-Godard-esque piece of cinema.
- There is an inexplicable Eartha Kitt cameo.
- There is a nod to another modernized Hamlet film “The Lion King” when they show a sign for the Broadway production in the background (was this intentional?)
- Hamlet was not the hero (like “The Lion King” version might have you believe), but instead he was a self-afflicting narcissist and this adaptation sticks heavily to the darker source material
- The brightly lit, openly spaced interior set design was an excellent choice to help illustrate wealth in this time period.
- Sam Shepard and Ethan Hawke both have slightly protruding front teeth – cute father-son casting moment.
- The choice to portray the sad reality of Ophelia’s situation without romanticizing an abusive relationship.
- Casey Affleck makes such random cameos.
- As I can see what was being done here, it is difficult to criticize because it will either be loved or hated, and that sort of dissonance is welcomed by the creator.
- It felt really chaotic and upsetting to watch, though, and I probably will never rewatch.
- The film uses clever tricks to keep with the original script in the modern setting.
In keeping with the presence of all things Shakespeare throughout the film, Hamlet travels on a plane, which allows the dialogue to stay the same as the original text takes place in “A plain in Denmark.” This is also a play on words.
- Ethan Hawke was the youngest actor to ever play Hamlet on film.
Hamlet is 30 in the play, but actors older than that are often chosen to portray him. At 29, he was also the one closest to his authentic age.
- Repeat offenders: Actors in this film who were also in other versions of Shakespeare plays or adaptations.
Both Diane Venora (Gertrude; Hamlet’s mother) and Liev Schreiber (Laertes) have previously acted in productions of Hamlet on the New York stage. In fact, Venora had actually played the title character in a famous and iconoclastic production of the play. Additionally, she played the mother of Juliet, Lady Capulet, in “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), the modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Also, as mentioned above, Julia Stiles was in several modern adaptations: She played Desi Brable (Desdemona) in “O” which was based on “The Moor of Venice” or by its more common title “Othello” and Kat Stratford (Katerina) in “Ten Things I Hate About You” which was based on “The Taming of the Shrew.”
4. The film references other modern Hamlet adaptations throughout the film.
Ophelia removes a rubber duck from her bag. This is a reference to Aki Kaurismäki’s version of Hamlet, “Hamlet Goes Business” (1987), where after the death of his father, Hamlet’s uncle controls the board of a company that decides to move into the rubber duck market. The music that plays during the film “The Mousetrap” is part of Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet”, op. 67. In one scene, Hamlet exits a taxi in midtown Manhattan near Times Square, and there is a giant sign for “The Lion King” on Broadway seen in the background. “The Lion King” is Disney’s adaptation of the classic play. Archive footage of Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet (from the 1920’s stage play put on by London’s West End) appears briefly on this Hamlet’s computer screen.
The book “The Mouse Trap” scene from the film (top); Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet (middle); the scene from the film where he appears (bottom)
5. William Shakespeare was both a playwright and an actor, and is widely believed to have played the ghost of Hamlet’s father in early productions. In this film, the Ghost is played by Sam Shepard, who is also both an actor and a playwright.
Image source: Sam Shepard Turner Classic Movie Bio
An obscure, but undeniable costume to rock from this film is of course the hat + yellow sunglasses.
Film Food &/Or Drink Pairing:
The beer seen throughout the film is Tuborg, a Danish brand.
Perhaps if you are feeling extra, you could serve with a charcuterie spread that prioritizes Ham. 😏
Hope you’ve enjoyed the Shakespeare series (round 1) & will be back for the next one!