To Movie or not to Movie
Review by Ross Anthony

I don't enjoy Shakespeare. Or that is to say, I haven't enjoyed Shakespeare when presented on film or stage. The big problem is too much poetry in too short of time. He's very clever, that guy, I don't want to miss any word playage. But it's ALL word playage encoded in backward archaic grammar. Seems to me, this stuff works better on paper, read at your own pace.

That said, I loved the first half of this film. This "Hamlet" drew me in like no other Shakespearean work, thus far. The gritty New York-style imagery, the high-tech video-insert motif, the grungey beady-eyed Hamlet (a shaggy goatee'd Ethan Hawke resembling the lead singer of "Sugar Ray"), the near total elimination of pompous delivery. It's not one of those snooty productions that treats its audience as if they were some unworthy congregation in a stuffy old Victorian church "privileged" to be pastured a righteous speech spat deliberately by self-proclaimed people of God. No, this Shakespeare may as well have been Tarantino; a slick method for making a 400 year old work more accessible to 21st century masses.

Did I mention that I never made it through any prior version of "Hamlet"? If there was any doubt, this should distance my opinion from those of the group of Shakespearean experts, lovers, etc. I love movies, and while I appreciate poetry (used to write it, actually) they don't work well together - not at length anyway (length being 25 minutes plus). Perhaps this is one reason I found the second half of this film less than compelling.

Hamlet is outraged when he learns his father (the king in William's version) the president of a huge corporation called Denmark has died, allowing his mother (the widowed queen) to hastily marry the uncle (king's brother). Not surprisingly, Hamlet's state is already askew, but the appearance of his father's ghost sets his tilt in a spinning suicidal whirl (hence the classic line "To be or not to be?"). Great filming on the apparition, though a mortal actor without special effects is used, his intense red-edged eyes fill the screen with a greater dread than a Spielberg poltergeist.

And that leads me to the second thing I don't enjoy about the Shakespeare I've seen ... the plot. Often, I find them ... well, thin, weak and empty. And this "Hamlet" is no exception. The premise is interesting ... but the resolve, flatly put ... ridiculous. "Penn and Teller Get Killed" has just about as much point ... and there's a lot more laughs (with just as much if not more blood).

Still, William has the sharpest of dagger tongues. In fact, this dialogue interplay is a two-hour sword fight of tongues. When I view films, I like to write down the "gems" to include as quotes in my reviews, but this film is so chock full of gems, that even just the ones I could decode in real time were to numerous to capture on paper. Again, this is why I think Shakespeare is a reader's art, not a theatergoer's (save for those who have already read the pieces).

Here are just a few of William's many many brilliant quips that stabbed my leaning attentions: Polonius warns his daughter of Hamlet's love: "Affections? That blaze gives more light than heat. Don't confuse it with fire." Polonius coaxes his couch potato daughter: "The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail and you are stay forth?" Hamlet on living a lie: "Do not spread the compost on the weeds to make them ranker ... throw away the worser and live the other half." (Purists, kindly forgive the imperfections in my transcriptions.)

In film, story is still more important than dialogue. From my admittedly limited knowledge of Shakespeare, I fault him for soapy thin plots. However, I praise director Mike Almereyda for the following reasons:

  1. Great choice of music, mixing modern (sometimes reverse recorded) sounds, with the epic classical timbers that conjure up images of cathedrals and armored horsemen, but instead are married with elevators and soda machines.
  2. Casting of Bill Murray as Polonius, he's a fresh, every-man, deep-hearted pleasant surprise addition to the pool of Shakespearean performers. He's excellent. I love the scene where he lifts Ophelia's foot to tie her shoe as he lectures her. In fact, the film is full of wonderful as-they're-talking events that make it real and not just a rackety wooden stage of costumed speeches.
  3. Likewise, casting of Karl Geary as Horatio (great job by him).
  4. The TV-play of explosions as the apparition speaks to Hamlet.
  5. The TV-clip usages of an Asian spiritual guru speaking on the use of the phrase "To Be."
  6. Gravedigger singing songs of the 1960's.
  7. TelePrompTer ending.

Almereyda, had many decisions regarding what to leave out when adapting this work. Personally, I would have cut the Claudius plotting with Ophelia's bro scene to one minute, cut all of Ophelia's lines until she screams (Ophelia's silence is an anchor to the earlier part of the film), hastened that ending, perhaps beefed up the father-son interplay and/or Hamlet/Ophelia love affair (sorely underplayed here).

[Interview with Hamlet Principals]

  • Hamlet. Copyright © 2000.
  • Starring Ethan Hawke, Kyle McLachlan, Diane Venora, Sam Shepard, Bill Murray, Live Schreiber, Julia Stiles, Karl Geary, Paula Malcomson, Steve Zahn, Dechen Thurman, Rome Neal.
  • Direction/screen adaptation by Michael Almereyda.
  • Written by William Shakespeare.
  • Produced by Andrew Fierberg, Amy Hobby. Presented by Mirimax.


Copyright © 2000. Ross Anthony, currently based in Los Angeles, has scripted and shot documentaries, music videos, and shorts in 35 countries across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. For more reviews visit:

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Last Modified: Saturday, 16-Sep-2006 08:08:36 PDT