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The Bard gets a millennial makeover in Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Baz Luhrmann’s flashy adaptation The Great Gatsby has us remembering other hyper-stylized takes on high-school reading-list staples.

Modern-dress versions of Shakespeare rarely amount to much more than attention-grabbing stunts, but Michael Almereyda’s take on the gloomy Dane, set in the clubs and corporate hallways of Manhattan circa what we then called Y2K, succeeds in finding a witty new angle on the text. For one thing, it jettisons quite a lot of said text—Act 1, Scene 1, for example, which would seem to be fairly important, is nowhere to be found. Instead, Almereyda (Another Girl, Another Planet; Nadja), a cult figure whose sensibility tends toward the avant-garde, retains the language but de-emphasizes the words, substituting purely visual correlatives that give familiar speeches a new ring. In the most memorable instance, Ethan Hawke’s preposterously moody Hamlet delivers the classic “To be, or not to be” soliloquy—an ode to paralysis—in the middle of a Blockbuster Video aisle, surrounded on all sides by signs urging “ACTION.” 

One could scarcely have predicted that the use of Blockbuster would make this film seem like a period piece only a dozen years later. (Another bit, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter a cab and have their Elizabethan bickering interrupted by the disembodied voice of Eartha Kitt, telling them to buckle up, is also now time-capsule fodder. And Hamlet’s pissed-off words to Ophelia—“to a nunnery, go!”—would be an SMS today, not an answering-machine message.) But the notion of Denmark as a multinational conglomerate rather than a country still has currency, as does the embodiment of “something rotten” in the form of omnipresent beeping noises and blinking lights. Sharp casting, likewise, has no expiration date: Sam Shepard makes for a surprisingly forceful Ghost, and Bill Murray should be legally obligated to play Polonius in every production staged henceforth, even if that requires the use of holograms. 

Availability: DVD, but not Blu-ray; rental and purchase from several digital services; and streaming on Netflix and Hulu Plus.