Hamlet

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Hamlet

If Hamlet is considered the Rosetta stone of literature, it's also a massive black hole, certain to devour every conceivable interpretation lobbed in its direction. Recent film adaptations, such as Franco Zefferelli's colorless 1990 version or Kenneth Branagh's problematic full-text stunt in 1996, have made gestures toward traditionalism, which is one possible solution. But there's something to be said for writer-director Michael Almereyda's cavalier revisionism, which transposes Hamlet to the sleek corporate environs of contemporary New York. Much of it is a mess, with Shakespeare's story truncated beyond comprehension and his words mangled by a self-conscious American cast. Yet at its most inspired, Almereyda's inventive staging uses the strange incongruities between Elizabethan language and present-day banality to see the modern world in a new way. Ethan Hawke is no one's idea of a Hamlet for the ages, but with his knit skullcap, tinted sunglasses, and ill-kempt goatee, he's slacker disaffection personified, an ideal outsider to the boardroom treachery at Denmark Corp., where his slain father was former "King" and CEO. A tragic chain of events is set in motion during a press conference at the Hotel Elsinore, when his widowed mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) and Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) announce their marriage and his ascendancy to the head of the company. Rounding out the major players are Ophelia (Julia Stiles), whose untied Adidas shoes are the first clue to her madness, her vengeful brother Laertes (Liev Schreiber), and her father Polonius (Bill Murray). Almereyda (Nadja) confessed to borrowing his central metaphor from Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's Hamlet Goes Business, but he's remarkably attuned to the circuitry that rules American discourse: His striking conceptual design is a densely layered hum of answering machines, surveillance cameras, and pixilated home video. Though Hamlet never quite comes together as a whole, its wittiest moments bring Shakespeare into the corporate age: Hamlet's father's ghost, normally treated with portentous dread, materializes in front of a Pepsi One machine, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss their devious plot with Claudius over conference call, and Almereyda's audacious choice of setting for the "To be or not to be..." soliloquy is a masterstroke. His Hamlet may not be as conventionally satisfying as other versions, but that scene alone could rescue it from the void.

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