There's something rotten in Denmark, but not in this darkly glittering update of Shakespeare's great tragedy.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Published May 12, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

There's a scene in "Back to School" where Rodney Dangerfield, as a fat old rich guy returning to college, struts into the campus bookstore and announces, "Shakespeare for everyone!"

It's a nice sentiment. But despite Shakespeare's renewed popularity -- the runaway success of "Shakespeare in Love," for example -- there's still a prevailing sentiment that you need all kinds of special keys to unlock his meaning. What's often amazed me is how frequently Shakespeare is held away from everyone. It's all well and good for academics to tell everyday people -- in other words, those of us who aren't scholars -- that Shakespeare's plays are about the richness of the language, first and foremost. The language is wonderful once you understand it. But there's something tyrannical about the purist view that the language of Shakespeare is the almighty key, because there are times when it can be dauntingly difficult. You could easily find a much more proficient Juliet than Claire Danes in Baz Luhrmann's "William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet." But you'd be hard pressed to find one who's as touching.

Watching Luhrmann's passionate but flawed movie, it struck me for the first time that the best way to keep Shakespeare alive, and for everyone, isn't necessarily through the most careful and proper line readings: that visuals and imagination and gut feeling all have to count for something too, all without going for modernization simply for the sake of novelty.

Michael Almereyda's somber, gorgeous, darkly glittering "Hamlet," set in New York in the early days of the 21st century, is so perfectly modern, and yet so mindful of the tradition of the play, that it seems to exist in two worlds at once. There's no sense that the narrative texture had to be jazzed up in order to make the material seem relevant to a modern audience. If anything, Almereyda's "Hamlet" is a meditation on the timelessness of the material. It's deeply inventive within the framework of the story, and it's funny in unexpected places. Every actor involved rises to the challenge of the language (Almereyda has streamlined the play for the screen but hasn't updated the text), although not every performer comes at it in an expected, or officially sanctioned, way.

But oddly enough it's the picture's visuals -- its mournful, glassy Manhattan high-rises; its limos and Town Cars with their mirrorlike flanks -- that make it feel most like "Hamlet." The picture carries a slight pall over it; the overarching sense that something is terribly wrong hovers in the air like a swarm of muted surveillance helicopters. It's as much a tone poem in honor of "Hamlet" as it is a raw interpretation of it, but it shines as both tribute and treatment.

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Why has it taken so long for movies to come around to addressing Shakespeare in such bold visual terms? Even a spectacle as lush as Kenneth Branagh's 1996 "Hamlet" -- a picture that brought me closer to this dense, staggeringly beautiful play than I'd ever felt before -- is still more like a filmed stage play than a visual reimagining of the material, as Almereyda's "Hamlet" is. Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet" was gorgeous, touching and messy: The director was perfectly in control of the picture's images, but less sure-footed in guiding its pacing and narrative drive.

But Almereyda's "Hamlet" could be considered a foot soldier of a new era, heralding a time when even Shakespeare purists accept that visuals can be enlisted in the service of the language, and not at the expense of it. Even New Yorker film critic David Denby, who claimed with characteristic fustiness that he loathes "anyone mucking about with the classics," has taken to this "Hamlet." Perhaps that's because there's no self-conscious artiness in Almereyda's approach, or in the approach of his actors. The picture was shot on a tight production schedule in super 16 millimeter. Every camera angle (the movie was beautifully shot by John de Borman), as well as every line of dialogue, exists only to move the action along and build the picture's dusky mood layer by layer, like storm-cloud stripes of agate.

The picture opens with an announcement that the CEO of the Denmark Corporation is dead. Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), a suspect in his death, has taken over as head of the conglomerate and has also married the CEO's widow Gertrude (Diane Venora), much to the dismay of her son Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a sullen fellow who, because of his privileged upbringing, doesn't really have to do much except sulk around Manhattan making video art. His girlfriend Ophelia (Julia Stiles), who comes from a similarly privileged background, is a photographer; she's guarded by her overly protective father Polonius (Bill Murray) and brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber).

Young Hamlet, still smarting from the death of his father and unable to fathom why his mother would remarry so soon, plays out his personal misery against a bank of video screens splayed out on his desk. He obsesses over footage of his mother and his late father (Sam Shepard), who were so clearly wrapped deep in love with one another before his father's death. Slouching in front of his monitor, clicking and double-clicking almost voyeuristically on these home movies of his parents' former happiness, he mutters, "She would hang on him as if increase of appetite had grown for what it fed on," his disbelief in her inconstancy mounting with every zoom and rewind.

And yet even with its tacit criticism of technology as an excessive and unavoidable part of everyday life, this "Hamlet" embraces modern culture more than vilifies it. Almereyda's Denmark Corporation is a symbol of corruption, but isn't a metaphor for the world at large. This isn't so much a case of an old play being made modern as a classic play standing up staunchly in the face of multimedia saturation. Almereyda's "Hamlet" isn't dismissive of contemporary culture at all -- if anything, it's an avowal of faith in its richness, in its ability to provide a consistently renewable and fresh framework for old stories.

If Almereyda is acutely aware of the sinister quality of fax machines or of the way big business threatens to overwhelm the delicate texture of everyday life, he's also completely unafraid to assert his affection for technology. When Hamlet alters the order for his own death so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (played by Steve Zahn and Dechen Thurman) will be executed instead, he uses a Powerbook -- and when he flips it on, that trademark chiming sound is like a reassurance of continuity in a frighteningly uncertain world.

This "Hamlet's" effectiveness rests on an astonishing number of pitch-perfect choices, founded in Almereyda's instincts and those of the performers, many of which have the feel of being completely spontaneous. Almereyda's movie feels trim and compact, the story boiled down to its very essence.

And he isn't afraid to lean on the most elemental aspects of the play, particularly the universal appeal of the ghost story that lies at its very center. That's no less than you'd expect from Almereyda, given the sleek gothic poetry of his 1995 feature "Nadja," a luminous fable about contemporary East Village vampire hipsters. The first appearance of Hamlet's ghost -- a gaunt and suitably miserable-looking Shepard in a long overcoat -- practically seems to stop time. He walks forlornly down an empty basement corridor, dissolving just as he passes into a Pepsi machine. But the moment isn't any kind of visual joke: It's more a shivery melding of the earthly and the unearthly, a way of contrasting comfortable and familiar things like soda machines with unsolvable problems, like the unhappiness of restless souls.

And later, when Hamlet's ghost appears to his son outside a glassed-in, high-rise terrace, the second glimpse we get of him is no less affecting. It's little wonder his presence snaps young Hamlet out of his ennui -- but it's just one perfectly natural interaction between two characters, in a movie where an ensemble of actors seem to read one another effortlessly. Almereyda's Hamlet is much younger than he's normally portrayed (and the narrow age difference between him and MacLachlan's Claudius adds yet another layer of complexity to Hamlet's Oedipal problems). Hawke walks the line easily between being an annoying, self-absorbed spud (and what is Hamlet if not self-absorbed?) and a troubled soul whose roiling confusion, if expressed right, can be enough to tear your heart in two.

Hawke plays Hamlet as a spoiled brat just on the cusp of being a serious young man: He struts around disaffectedly in a Peruvian knit cap with earflaps, the kind of doofy-looking headgear that you see on handsome young hipsters in almost any urban center. It's a look that confers a false sense of invisibility and thus invincibility ("I really don't care how foolish this thing makes me look"), and it's part of what makes Hawke's performance so touching.

His soliloquy -- delivered in the "Action" aisle of a Blockbuster Video store -- is affecting precisely because it's so un-Shakespearean. Hawke, with his aw-shucks demeanor, his slightly superior sneer, his wispy facial hair, plays Hamlet as just a guy -- a student on break from school. His everydayness, his clear refusals to try to aspire to some kind of Shakespearean greatness, is exactly what makes him breathe. Hawke certainly isn't the greatest Hamlet of living memory (I suppose most bets would have to go to Olivier), but his performance reinforces Hamlet's place as Shakespeare's greatest character. And in that sense, he more than holds his own in the long line of actors who've played the part.

And the cast around him is nothing short of stellar. Shepard is both a deeply moving and nerve-racking ghost, so mournful as to be unsettling. MacLachlan's Claudius is all the more insidious for being such a clean-scrubbed hail-fellow-well-met. Of all Almereyda's actors, Venora and Schreiber (both of whom have played Hamlet on stage in New York) are the most comfortable with Shakespeare's language. As Gertrude, Venora strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and selfishness. And even though he has only a small amount of screen time, Schreiber's Laertes feels completely and beautifully fleshed out. When he says goodbye to his sister, he secretly draws a little butterfly barrette from her hair, and the tenderness of the gesture is mirrored perfectly in the look on his face: He's beginning to miss her terribly, and forever, well in advance.

Stiles brings a gentle stillness to her Ophelia: When she begins to unravel (along the vertigo-inducing spiral walkway of the Guggenheim museum, no less), her fragility is echoed by a collar of quivering black feathers that frames her face. (The costumes, conceived by Luca Mosca and Marco Cattoretti, are inspired.) And Murray's Polonius, bumbling and warm, is the picture's glowing emotional center. There's an early moment when, as he's warning Ophelia not to get too entangled with Hamlet, he reaches down and impulsively ties her sneaker -- a reassurance of fatherly protectiveness that's heartbreaking in light of its futility.

"Hamlet" is one of those cases where a group of actors band together (working for scale, it should be noted) to pull off something miraculous. If this "Hamlet" weren't so perfectly conceived visually, it would probably stand solidly on the basis of its acting alone.

As it is, though, Almereyda's seemingly offhanded choices come together to make "Hamlet" feel almost like a feat of alchemy. When Ophelia finally succumbs to insanity ("There's rosemary, that's for remembrance"), she tosses a series of Polaroids, instead of flower petals, over her shoulder. After he murders Polonius, Hamlet retreats to a Laundromat, where Claudius corners him: The claustrophobically narrow corridor, lined with spinning portals, is a potent metaphor for the way Hamlet's reality is closing in on him. And the movie's finale -- the duel between Hamlet and Laertes -- takes place on an urban rooftop, a place where penthouse luxury meets unavoidable tragedy. With the lights of the city glittering around them, Hamlet and Laertes play out the only choices they have left. They're as far away from Denmark as you can get, and yet, somehow, they couldn't bring it any closer. Technology may be the thing that shrinks time and space, but it's really art that travels at the speed of light.

Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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