Hamlet

on May 12, 2000 by Annlee Ellingson
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   Inviting comparisons to Baz Luhrman's "Romeo + Juliet," another Shakespearean tragedy set in modern America that retains the Bard's original language, writer-director Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet" is a more mature film, juxtaposing contemporary images with the classic poetry to prove that the story is timeless.

   In this version, Denmark isn't the country but a huge corporation, of whom Hamlet's father was the king and CEO before he met an early demise. Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), here a angsty experimental filmmaker, returns from school to find that his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) has married his father's younger brother Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan, in an unexpected bit of casting genius), whom Hamlet suspects murdered his father. Meanwhile, young Ophelia (Shakespeare update stalwart Julia Stiles, perfectly melding modern teen angst with classic beauty) pines for Hamlet, despite her father Polonius' (Bill Murray) and brother Laertes' (Liev Schreiber) objections.

   Almereyda bombards his film with extraneous information, emulating modern life. The Internet, speakerphones, Mr. MovieFone and Blockbuster Video all play roles of varying importance, the latter being the setting for the "To be or not to be" monologue while "The Crow" blares in the background. What could be construed as product placement is, but deliberately so--a comment on modern-day life.

   "Hamlet's" mise-en-scene, from the costumes to the sets, employs a futuristic look. Gertrude and Claudius look sleek and sophisticated, befitting their positions as businesspeople of import, while their son adapts the grunge accoutrements of rebellion. Denmark's postmodern headquarters are stark and sterile while Hamlet's abode looks lived-in and even cozy, were it not for the barren veranda on which the ghost of his father appears.

   As always with Shakespeare, the language may be a barrier to modern moviegoers, but Almereyda has infused "Hamlet" with such a contemporary sensibility that today's audiences can't help but relate. Starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle MacLachlan, Diane Venora, Liev Schreiber, Julia Stiles and Bill Murray. Directed and written by Michael Almereyda. Produced by Andrew Fierberg and Amy Hobby. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for some violence. Running time: 113 min

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