As director Baz Luhrmann so clearly demonstrated four years ago with his misguided, abrasive, MTV-age William Shakespeare's "Romeo + Juliet," simple modernization's not so simple when it comes to the Bard. In his attempt to transport Shakespeare's timeless themes and still-resonant language to a contemporary setting, Luhrmann resorted to transparent gimmickry.
Michael Almereyda (Nadja) brilliantly ups the ante with a compelling, moving adaptation of "Hamlet" that's so effective in its approach to the great tragedy that even the purists may concede a victory. Who needs a period setting -- or a rewrite, a la Ten Things I Hate About You's take on "Taming of the shrew" -- when the original play is relevantly recast in the here and now?
Denmark, a kingdom in the familiar text, has become Denmark Inc., a multinational Manhattan corporation ruled by Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan), and castle Elsinore is now a luxurious, high-rise hotel. The yuppie striver inherited the ruling position, as well as new wife Gertrude (Diane Venora), upon the death of his older brother (Sam Shepard). Young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a slacker filmmaker in a Peruvian knit cap and a goatee, is a glum college kid home on break, disturbed by the new domestic arrangement and spurred on by his father's ghost to investigate the suspicious death.
The design of this particular Shakespearean universe, so organically integrated with the mood and the meaning of the story, is a wonder to behold. Photographed in Super 16mm and blown up to 35mm, it's a world of shiny steel surfaces that intersect with expanses of white concrete and glass. The very look of the textures -- unerringly bright, clean and bordering on the sterile, except when the Prince of Denmark takes a jaunt to the grittier environs of downtown -- adds to the sense of dread.
The Information Age, too, is key to the workings of Almereyda's "Hamlet." The would-be heir's relationships with his parents and with the lovely, doomed Ophelia (Julia Stiles) are revealed via video flashback. A key conversation between the young woman and her loving, overprotective father, Polonius (Bill Murray), is observed from the point of view of a security camera. Faxes deliver news from England. And Hamlet uses a Powerbook to rewrite an order that he be executed by pals-turned-traitors Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman).
The famous "To be or not to be" monologue is delivered as the title character cruises the aisles of a Blockbuster video store, his eyes drawn to the colorful boxes lining the shelves of the "Action" section as a background banner screams, "Go home happy." It's a smart twist, another in a series of visual gambits that combine with uniformly sharp performances to hurtle the narrative toward its inevitably bloody conclusion.