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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: June ::
Re: The Almereyda *Hamlet*
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1153  Monday, 5 June 2000.

[1]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Friday, 02 Jun 2000 15:54:59 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

[2]     From:   Richard Nathan <
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        Date:   Sunday, 04 Jun 2000 02:57:27 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

[3]     From:   John Ottenhoff <
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        Date:   Sunday, 04 Jun 2000 15:39:26 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

[4]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Sunday, 4 Jun 2000 19:42:31 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

[5]     From:   Hardy M. Cook <
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        Date:   Monday, June 05, 2000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Friday, 02 Jun 2000 15:54:59 -0600
Subject: 11.1145 New Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

In response to Kenneth Requa's request for comments on the new Hamlet,
I'll give a few of my thoughts.  I saw the film in Montreal at the
Shakespeare Association meetings.  The screening was followed by
comments from and a question-answer session with the director.

On Bill Murray: His performance was, for me, one of the disappointments
of the film-not because he did especially poorly, but because I had been
hoping his performance would be one of the high points of the film.  The
director said (as I remember) that Murray had always wanted to do
Shakespeare and jumped at the chance, but was maybe a bit intimidated.
It seems to me pretty clear that Murray was trying very hard NOT to do
Polonius humorously.  He was working hard to avoid his own comic
mannerisms that could have made Polonius very funny but that would maybe
(in Murray's view?) have cheapened the performance.  Anyway, Murray's
performance seemed to me workmanlike and a bit flat.

The film in general was very loud, with grinding, droning noise in the
background most of the time-some of it was music I think, but not all.
I'm not sure the film will be as noisy when released, and I think the
noise may have been in part due to the sound system, as well as the
print, we were dealing with.

My main impression (partly a complaint) is that almost all the
characters seemed dead.  Hamlet, as I remember, was largely monotone and
expressionless; so were Horatio and his girlfriend (an interesting
addition that I've heard explained as an attempt to show one good [?]
relationship in the film).  Gertrude and Claudius were quite lively and
interesting, but also shallow, superficial, almost caricatures.

I found Ophelia compelling.  Her drowning, which is presented as
probably deliberate and which is foreshadowed quite memorably, is
apparently a response to, or a kind of continuation of, her being
smothered by circumstances (and by her dad).  Nevertheless, I think I
would have preferred an Ophelia with more variety, more dimensions.  I
kept looking at her lips to see if they moved, if they ever took any
position but a static straight across.  Like almost everyone else in the
film (perhaps more so), Ophelia is incredibly bummed out,
emotionless-or, perhaps better put, has been subjected to an intensive
suppression or deadening of all emotions.

The character I think I liked the best was the Ghost (played by Sam
Shepherd).  He seemed to me more alive, and more believably human, than
most of the other characters.

I know others had different, and some, more positive, responses. But
that's mine.

Bruce Young

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Nathan <
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Date:           Sunday, 04 Jun 2000 02:57:27 +0000
Subject: 11.1145 New Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

The new film of "HAMLET" is certainly worth seeing, although it isn't a
classic.  The film is lacking in poetry, but the story is moving,
particularly Ophelia's madness.

It seemed to me that Hawke could have done a better job learning his
dialogue.  I could be wrong, but during his "to be or not to be"
soliloquy, I though he referred to death at "the undiscovered country /
To his bourne no travelor returns."

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Ottenhoff <
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Date:           Sunday, 04 Jun 2000 15:39:26 -0400
Subject: 11.1145 New Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

Kenneth Requa asks about the new "Hamlet" film, and I too have been
surprised by the lack of discussion about it on the list.  I saw it at
SAA in Montreal along with several hundred other Shakespeareans, who
seemed by and large to find it smart and clever.   Michael Almereyda,
the director, answered questions for a good 30 minutes, questions that
reflected, I thought, real respect for the work (mere politeness
wouldn't have accounted for the tone). I don't have time now for a
fuller review, but I will say Ethan Hawke is something of a relief after
Branaghian bombast in the title role;  he does a lot of moping and
videotaping but also generates some emotion.  "To Be" recited in a
Blockbuster Video store worked for me.  The film is visually very
interesting and the sound track is aggressive, but Almereyda keeps
things much more under control than Luhrmann does in his "R+J".  I'd
definitely suggest that you see it; I've been waiting for it to open in
the hinterlands so I can re-see it.   Elvis Mitchell had a very positive
review in the NY Times a few weeks ago.

John Ottenhoff
Alma College
Alma, MI

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Sunday, 4 Jun 2000 19:42:31 -0400
Subject: 11.1145 New Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

Last night I saw the Ethan Hawke Hamlet, or as I'd rather call it,
Hamlet: The Video. At the end someone behind me said "That was great",
and from the reviews maybe that's a more typical reaction than mine. I
feel a little trepidation, not to say guilt, about panning it, and
making myself vulnerable to the old fogey label, the response that I'm
just against updating the classics, which must needs be updated, and so
on. But I still can't say I hope this represents the future of Hamlet
interpretation.

Hamlet, the play, is hard enough to comprehend as it is. There's a thin
line between mystery and incoherence, and this movie seriously crosses
it. It cuts the play down to famous lines from Hamlet, which might be
understandable, but it also chops those lines apart and rearranges
them-not to mention getting quite a few of them gratuitously wrong-in a
way that loses most of the emotional, and rational, power of the play. A
few examples: Gertrude talks about how guilt spills itself in fearing to
be spilt without any preceding notice that the mad Ophelia wants to be
admitted. Claudius puts the poison pearl in the drink ages before he
offers it to Hamlet-and Gertrude somehow intuits that the wine is
poisoned, a distortion Olivier at least worked a little harder to make
plausible. There' s no poisoned sword, and no indication of why or how
Laertes might switch from Claudius's side to Hamlet's. The "O what a
rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy has no visible relation to the
players, who don't appear.  Fortinbras's army also remains invisible, so
"How all occasions" lacks occasion. I won't go on.

"How all occasions" I thought was one of Hawke's better efforts. A
director who knew and cared something about the words would have helped
him get closer to the lines. Diane Venora, who's now playing Lady
Macbeth in Boston, opposite Kelsey Grammer, was very good, as were
several others, not including Bill Murray. Sam Shepard was terrific as
the ghost-the revelation scene was one of the best parts. The movie did
show how movies can go beyond theater in intimacy-go in close, let the
actors speak almost to the camera, whisper even, as you watch their
faces, their lips, their teeth.

I found Hawke's Hamlet a bit repulsive, though maybe younger people will
like him better. He seems, as far as you can tell what he feels,
generically alienated from the corrupt old, honeying and making love in
their sterile canyons of glass and steel. A shot from Rebel without a
Cause drives the point home. Being the heir to the throne doesn't mean
much in the Denmark Corporation, and Christianity is now so
incomprehensible they leave out the argument about sending Claudius to
hell. You don't get any real sense of what's going on with Hamlet,
except that he's self-righteous, resentful, sourly alienated. (How can I
identify with such a character?) Even the revenge vs delay theme loses
focus, leaving Hamlet about where Wilson Knight first placed him, as the
source of sickness in Denmark, before tempering his somewhat twisted
view. The teenage resentment of adult oppression comes across much more
credibly in Julia Stiles's performance as Ophelia. She isn' t bad with
the words, but she's even better with the actions. Not as great as Kate
Winslet, but I found her very touching. Her responses gave the film its
most coherent emotional thread. Horatio, though his part was mostly cut,
and he spoke with a strange deadpan, I also liked, and Liev Shreiber
wasn't bad as Laertes.

This film brought strongly back to mind Alfred Harbage's classic attack
on Jan Kott, "Shakespeare Without Words". Kott may be a key influence
here, as he is for most of the "avant garde" directors, adrift in the
stale backwash of European modernism, who put their stamp on Shakespeare
by competing for the most "creative" ways of distracting the audience
from the words: making the plays a series of visual set pieces,
production numbers, funny bits of business, etc.-as here, for example,
bringing in the gravedigger only to throw up a couple shovelfuls of dirt
while singing a verse from "All Along the Watchtower". I guess in "New
York, 2000" gravediggers don't run into any old skulls. There were some
good shots, but the eye and ear seem at odds, with the ear, and, I
found, the play losing out.

It's comforting to remember that we're not even through the first
century of sound movies. People will come along who will do Shakespeare
on film better.  Meanwhile, does this movie do some good by drawing
people to Shakespeare who might not otherwise come to him? I wish I
could think so. Maybe I should think so. It would be the nice thing to
think, wouldn't it? But I have a feeling it will tend to make more
people shirk their cultural duty the next time around.

I loved an English movie of As You Like It a few years ago, where the
Forest of Arden was a vacant lot, and the Duke's men tramps warming
themselves at fires in oil drums. I'm not against updating, when it's
more than fashionably slick, only against deafness.

David

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:           Monday, June 05, 2000
Subject: 11.1145 New Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1145 New Hamlet

I too saw the Almereyda *Hamlet* at the SAA meeting.

The screening space left much to be desired. A large screen and a
tremendous set of speaker were placed in the ballroom of the Queen
Elizabeth Hotel. Thus, the seats were all on the same level, making it
difficult to get a clear unobstructed view. Furthermore, I was sitting
behind Ken Rothwell, and we all know what a giant Ken is to Shakespeare
on film studies. The sound too was distractingly too loud. Again, I
would tend to attribute this to the space and not the film. I believe
Almereyda commented on the sound level during the question and answer
period.

Having said these caveats, I enjoyed what I saw.

The film was made on a very low budget (all of the actors played for
scale). Because of the low budget, the resulting product was rough. Some
of the cinematic techniques reminded me of the Luhrmann *Romeo +
Juliet*, and I wondered to myself what the film would have been like if
Almereyda had had Luhrmann's budget. During the question and answer
session, Almereyda lamented that he did not have the money to re-shoot
some of the scenes that he was not satisfied with.

What made the film interesting to me, someone with a film/television
background, was its reflexivity.

*Bonnie and Clyde* uses windows and frames of various sorts to call
attention to its reflection on myth making and violence. Almereyda uses
video to a similar end. One moment, I considered brilliant was the point
in the film that corresponded to Polonius's interrogation of Hamlet,
which, of course, begins, "What do you read my Lord?" This line is not
spoken; Almereyda has Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), instead, looking at a
playback through his video camera, suggesting the visual equivalent of
"Images, Images, Images" to the play's spoken "Words, Words, Words."

The film is now playing at one theatre in Washington, DC, and I hope to
see it there shortly.
 

©2011 Hardy Cook. All rights reserved.