This weekend, "Coriolanus" will be opening in limited release, a modern-day adaptation of William Shakespeare's tragedy. The film stars and is directed by Ralph Fiennes, but of course it's not the first film to take Shakespeare's work and try to reinvent it for contemporary times. But the adaptation that first came to mind in relation to "Coriolanus" is probably one that people forget, partly because it was an indie and partly because it was very much its own thing, taking multiple liberties as it went along. It's writer-director Michael Almereyda's "Hamlet," which starred Ethan Hawke in the title role.
Released in May of 2000, "Hamlet" was the third major film version of the play in 10 years. In 1990, you had Mel Gibson as the Melancholy Dane -- this was during his "look at what a serious actor I am" phase -- and then in 1996 you had director/star Kenneth Branagh's massively ambitious, uncut, four-hour edition. But while both of those earlier films deviated from the text in their own ways, Almereyda's was the most radical. The action was set in modern-day Manhattan, with the kingdom being fought over a corporation. The poster's tagline ("A hostile takeover is underway") made clear that the play's themes were being used as metaphors for the business world in which power and suspicion were just as potent as they were back in old Denmark.
Almereyda chose to keep the Shakespearean language despite the modern setting -- Fiennes does the same thing for "Coriolanus," which I'll be seeing this evening -- and it's an approach I don't think always works. Done right, the strategy demonstrates how universal the Bard's words are, even when they're being delivered amidst skyscrapers. But it can also give this "Hamlet" an artificiality that's a bit distancing. Still, that's hardly the riskiest gambit of this movie. Casting Hawke as Hamlet would probably be it.
Hawke is a celebrity who drives a lot of folks crazy. He's practically a precursor to James Franco: an actor who fancies himself a renaissance man by directing music videos, writing books and generally behaving pretentiously. So his turn in "Hamlet" is the DEFCON 1 for a lot of his detractors. But I think he's the best part of this flawed but compelling film. Trying to mature beyond the sensitive-hipster roles he perfected in "Reality Bites" and "Before Sunrise," Hawke displays a palpable misery throughout "Hamlet." At its worst, it seems like he's embodying the worldview of every songwriter fronting an emo band, but he's also weirdly effective as well. This comes through most clearly in his "To be or not to be" monologue, which is delivered in a video store. Yes, fine, he's in the "Action" section -- we get it, we get it -- but he and Almereyda latch onto something very real about the emptiness of urban living, surrounded by so much stimulus but yet so lonely at the same time.
This "Hamlet" isn't just about Hawke, though. You've also got Bill Murray as Polonius, Julia Stiles as Ophelia, and Jeffrey Wright as the gravedigger. There's an impatient desire to rethink Shakespeare that courses throughout this "Hamlet," probably most visible in the movie's references to surveillance cameras and videotape. We think of Shakespeare's play as a gloomy, moody affair, but what makes Almereyda's version special is how it argues that modern life is just as soul-crushing. Eight years before Louis C.K.'s brilliant "Everything's Amazing, Nobody's Happy" monologue, this "Hamlet" was already feeling the ennui.