A new school of acting should be constructed based on the method of Ethan Hawke. I am the first to admit that I enjoy Ethan Hawke in almost anything he does. The reason I like him so much is because he brings the essence of the brooding soul to the screen so well. Hawke plays Tortured Guy so perfectly they should give an award at the Oscars every year and call it the ‘E. Hawke Award for Best Brooding Performance of the Year’. As a natural-born brooder, the character of Hamlet perfectly suits Hawke because the role has always been given to older guys looking to validate their dramatic acting chops. Hawke’s Hamlet is the Generation X Hamlet. A Hamlet that uses his ‘discontent’ with the world as a razor against the neck of reality.
This updated 20th century Hamlet is brought to vivid realism by independent director Michael Almereyda. Almereyda places the play in the year 2000, creating the state of Denmark as a huge conglomerate, the slain king a CEO, and Hamlet as a digital video maker. This interpretation sounds almost like it’s going to be as much fun as a ten-car pileup on the expressway; you want to turn your head away from in disgust but are strangely curious about what happened.
The surprise is that this is one of the best versions of Hamlet. Almereyda has studied every film and stage version of the play, and his history lessons have paid off. He creates a stark, unflinching vision of a dangerous world where trust is a lost commodity and betrayal is weapon.
Hawke carries the vehicle well with his unflinching performance of a haunted man pushed to the brink, finding solace among the haunting visions of dead souls and images he captures with his camera. The supporting cast of Kyle Machlachan, Julia Stiles, Diane Venora, Bill Murray– doing a damn good job with the dialogue — and Sam Shepard are surprising in their ability to convey the motivations of the characters. Almereyda does an incredible job of taking the text and rearranging the structure to capture a better essence of Hamlet as it exists in the 21st century. The most enjoyable scene is when Hamlet recites the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ while he is walking up and down the aisles of a Blockbuster Video. The imagery of the enormity of the aisles and the sense of Hamlet lost within a world of escapism is haunting and strangely unnerving. Julia Stiles equally provides a quiet reserve to the character of Ophelia and her muted voice speaks strongly in scenes as others determine her fate for her.
Michael Almeryda’s Hamlet is dangerous and sharp-edged. It retains a clear hold of the text and doesn’t try to dress up the scenes with numerous cuts and flashy imagery. The actors smoothly roll through the acts and do not drag things down with dramatic flair. Speakerphones, video, digital still photos, laptops, and cell phones are used as not only showpieces, but also as valid devices to communicate the play’s text. If more classic plays can be updated with such brilliance, maybe more people will put down their Backstreet Boys biographies and pick a Hemingway novel or a Shakespearean play and start to understand the world around us.
Hamming it up.