On multiple video monitors at his Manhattan apartment in the Hotel Elsinore, the modern Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) mesmerizes himself with his own distressed image. At Blockbuster Video, he rents action films by the dozen, all the better to create his frightening movie-within-a-movie that is his version of the play wherein he'll "catch the conscience of the king." His girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles) has her own darkroom and carries around a bunch of Polaroid proofs that will scatter around her like fallen leaves as she herself disintegrates. Typical of their generation, Hamlet and Ophelia try to escape into the technologies of image making, but because this Hamlet is none other than Shakespeare's tragedy, their essential identities, and thus their fates, are as bound--and sealed--as ever.
With any contemporized rendering of Shakespeare, there are always those who feel the plays can't be authentic if the stagecraft isn't as "Shakespearean" as the language. But we are reminded in the 1947 revised edition of The Yale Shakespeare that "the outline of the story of Hamlet, as we are familiar with it, is first found in the Historica Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish chronicler who lived at the end of the twelfth century." When Shakespeare's play was performed by his company, it was by definition a Hamlet in modern dress.
The Hamlet boldly imagined for our time by the film maker Michael Almereyda--who tells a preview audience that he made the movie "in a hurry, for very little money"--is a rich achievement. Hamlet and Ophelia are the casualties not only of character but of an all-too-familiar corporate power-lust. As the Denmark Corporation's CEO/king, Hamlet's uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) is frighteningly without conscience. He has married Hamlet's adulterous mother, "our sometime sister, now our queen" Gertrude (Diane Venora), whose own innocence and guilt converge before our eyes as she reluctantly comes to her own palpable realization of all that has gone wrong. Despite the intrinsic familiarity of the play's story line, this movie version has a momentum of its own--enhanced by its frantic and fractured vision of life in the big city--so that even though we know at the beginning that by the end they will all be dead, Almereyda generates genuine emotional suspense as well as an active curiosity about how the film will deliver the known tragic outcome. Every line spoken by the actors was written by William Shakespeare, but the busy background noise and fast-paced disjointedness of Almereyda's film version make this Hamlet acutely expressive of our own exploding culture. While the young Hamlet broods, what Claudius calls "the hectic in my blood" seems to circulate throughout.
The characters in this Hamlet are conveyed--with the multiplicity of perspective that also marks our era--as an ensemble of complex personalities with layered and sometimes discomforting histories together. Here the actors display a depth of thought about the characters they play that is not often visible when Hamlet reaches the screen. Almereyda's achievement is that his actors project--and in close-up!--the fundamental interior transformations that drive the action. And in a play so famously ambiguous, this clarity, while unavoidably provisional, is nevertheless welcome.
For example, a decision has been made here about Gertrude's intentions as she takes up the poisoned cup and drinks from it, a decision for which Almereyda credits a director's notation from a stage production in the 1970s (in the margin of the script was written, "Gertrude knows"). Others may be more comfortable with a less deliberate interpretation, but I think that this "knowing" on Gertrude's part--knowing that her new husband intends to kill her son--provides a tragic gravity that is missing when her death by poisoning is played as entirely accidental. Diane Venora brings a veteran's power to the role of Gertrude, which she again performed this past winter in an acclaimed stage production at the Public Theater in New York City, with Hamlet played by the gifted Liev Schreiber, who plays Ophelia's brother Laertes in this film version. In other words, there is a real theatrical authority invested here, and this strength seems by extension to empower those other actors--Bill Murray as Polonius, Sam Shepard as the ghost of Hamlet's father, and Ethan Hawke, for that matter--who might not at first come to mind as right for their roles, but who become so.
Stunning without question is Julia Stiles, who embodies Ophelia with an authenticity equal to Diane Venora's Gertrude. In this film, we truly experience Ophelia's madness as the high-cost consequence of her insight. In contrast to the usual, more illusive representations of a solitary Ophelia, here we have a complex character whose decline is tangibly a response to Hamlet's own deterioration. And this Gertrude and Ophelia, so accessible in their internal development, make us aware of how much of the story we have missed in less "modernized" Hamlets with their unexplored women.
According to Julia Stiles in a brief telephone interview, her own sense of the character was arrived at once she understood Ophelia as a young woman "who was trying to please everybody, even though Hamlet and her father send contradictory messages." The popular book Reviving Ophelia, says Stiles, helped her see the tragic impact upon the self-image of young women who are "suffocated by their environment and this need to please." Most useful--because, as she says, "Shakespeare never writes stage direction"--were the "visuals" that Almereyda wrote into the script, which conveyed, without words, the intensity of feeling between Ophelia and the other characters. Stiles says she admired Almereyda's various concrete choices in the making of this film, and at the same time, what she rediscovered about Shakespeare was the wide-open range of possibility of interpretation.
ne such possibility is presented in the persuasive invention of Gertrude and Claudius, the new novel by John Updike, which tells Updike's version of the story-before-the-story told in Shakespeare's play. In the novel, we are invited to imagine a Claudius who is driven primarily by his desire for Gertrude, which prompts a different interpretation of his ambitions for the throne of her husband the king, his brother. Necessarily too, then, does Updike's Gertrude gain in both dimension and sympathy. The reader experiences her, in the novel's three parts, as the daughter of a king and the wife of two subsequent kings. And as the mother of a presumptive fourth, the future King Hamlet, Gertrude is thus given the means to instruct Ophelia--with the generosity of feeling that in Shakespeare resides only between the lines--about the nature of female compliance. "Men are beautiful enemies we are set down among," Gertrude tells Ophelia in Updike's novel. "If we have been compliant with one man, they reason, we may be also with another. The wish to be agreeable we take in with our mother's milk, alas."
In his own vivid telling, Updike, too, brings the story forward in time, beginning his novel in the late twelfth century and moving the story (by changing the names) into Shakespeare's time and (by exploring the point of view of Claudius as a stepfather) to the verge of our own. The characters are so actual--even with their ancient names and antique speech--that, like Almereyda's Hamlet, Updike's novel enlarges the conversation about the nature of love and power, of loyalty and betrayal. And, as in any telling of this mythic story, its success has less to do with where in time or place it is set than with how psychologically complete and emotionally true is our experience of it.
ther screen Hamlets over the years have taken other approaches. Helpful for its literal representation of the whole text of Hamlet, word for word, is the epic-length Kenneth Branagh film (1996), which includes all the scenes usually left, for the sake of pacing, on the cutting room floor. In this production, Kate Winslet is uneven as Ophelia, whom she represents as a Botticelli Venus, and Julie Christie's Gertrude is never the dramatic equal of either her husband (Derek Jacobi's Claudius) or her son (Kenneth Branagh's own Hamlet). And yet this complete version has the real advantage of displaying both of these women as the characters Shakespeare wrote and therefore as more complex than, when edited, they are often rendered.
Laurence Olivier's 1948 film, for instance--in which, like Branagh, he both stars and directs-- is so melodramatic to a modern sensibility that it is almost comic, an effect reinforced by the physical resemblance between the young Olivier and Steve Martin. But it suffers even more from the fact that Ophelia and the queen are played with blank faces that seem rarely to crack into meaningful expression, and like Branagh, Olivier essentially stages the play as a one-man show.
If the Olivier version seems too stylized, the Franco Zeffirelli film version (1990), by contrast, is too casual. As Hamlet, Mel Gibson offers too little evidence of the internal struggle that is at the heart of the play, which has the awful effect of disembodying the great soliloquies. The characterization is undermined by a cuteness on the part of Gibson--as when Hamlet winks at his mother in a comic sword scene--which, in turn, makes all the more difficult the other adjoining roles, especially that of Gertrude (Glenn Close) and Ophelia, who is bravely played by a girlish Helena Bonham Carter.
With the illumination that Almereyda and Updike have brought to the story, the lack of compelling women in other versions now seems an overwhelming gap. To know the play is to want to know it better, and yet, the one certainty in any discussion of Hamlet is that there's no such thing as a final word.
"Absent thee from felicity awhile,/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,/ To tell my story." This is Hamlet's last charge to his friend Horatio. It is a pleasure to find the challenge taken up once again, and met. ¤