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Let us dispense with the notion that there is an accurate “period” way to present the works of Shakespeare, and that any production that doesn’t call for farthingales is snarky postmodernism. The culture itself constantly recontextualizes these tales just by changing. As time marches on, Shakespeare’s oft-described timelessness marches in lock step.
Still, it helps to understand the plays and the culture well enough to know which aspect of the latter will best illuminate the former. Sir Ian McKellan’s Mosley-era Richard III was a piquant idea but not quite a profound one, giving play only to the work’s most prominent and therefore deceptive themes: power gone awry, perverted ambition, and sexuality. I have long dreamed of a Connecticut Richard II, entwined in imagery of florid succulence and rot, with a barely disguised Martha Stewart-type domestic tycoon in the lead role.
Michael Almereyda’s treatment of Hamlet is so precise and evocative it’s almost embarrassing that no one has thought of it before. Set in an alienating modern New York, the alienated hero is not merely a mopey kid, but a product of his times. The scion of corporate players, he is so distanced from life’s raw stuff by the intermediary role of technology that his indecision becomes an emotional metaphor for his inability to experience anything firsthand. Bristling with surveillance cameras, videotape, still photographs, computer screens, and blank-faced disks, this Hamlet authenticates Shakespeare’s copious and usually forgivable dependence on eavesdropping and the ill-timed entrance of various messengers (here via fax). The tragedy of Hamlet’s character isn’t his ambivalence; it’s his lack of qualification for taking the drastic action necessary in the astonishing situation in which he finds himself. “O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right,” Ethan Hawke sneers under a grunge ski cap. He’s not bemoaning Hamlet’s natural drippiness, but is frozen by fear of direct endeavor in a world heretofore experienced at a remove.
It is the secondhand experience of being somewhere in line for kingship—or its modern-dress version, CEOship of Denmark Corporation—that is torn away from Hamlet, the first of many cossetting layers that will eventually bare his naively murderous soul. As flashbulbs pop and Hamlet gets it all on videotape, Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) gives a speech to the press in which he announces his succession to the post of the dead king, and that Fortinbras has been beaten back (after uttering “So much for him,” Claudius tears an 8-x-10 glossy in two). But the sulky heir isn’t interested in the machinations of his uncle and treacherous mother (Diane Venora, playing Gertrude with all the sinuous self-satisfaction of a cat who’s washed a brace of canaries down with a quart of cream). Hamlet catches the eye of equally sulky Ophelia (Julia Stiles) and impulsively steals a kiss from her as the press conference breaks up. It’s only after Claudius makes oily advances—telling Hamlet, basically, to get over it—that the boy bridles, recording into his digital diary the course of his reactions.
Hawke is a remarkably good Hamlet, natural without being naturalistic like so many of his James Deanish, not to mention Danish, coevals. His speech in which he angrily ruminates on Gertrude’s expedient remarriage is savage and well-spoken. He engages in easy byplay with Horatio, a poufy-lipped Irish cutie (although Almereyda gives Horatio a mute girlfriend to drain some of the homoerotic undertones out of the boys’ friendship), but his demeanor with Rosencrantz (a pricelessly fatuous Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern descends from glib, if insincere, friendliness to open contempt, as Hamlet begins to suspect them of being not just spies but morons. This Hamlet isn’t ambivalent but frustrated, raging with energy and hormones and a cynicism founded not on Gen-X formulism but thwarted sentimentality. And the only outlets he can find are the cold screens of his computer diary and anguished interior monologues. Almereyda doesn’t shy away from The Big One; he has Hamlet watch himself on videotape repeating “To be or not be,” foreshadowing the actual soliloquy, beautifully repositioned in a video store, as Hamlet stalks aisle after aisle literally caught between Action and Action, as the signs on either side of him read.
By planting Hamlet and his situation firmly in the modern world, Almereyda actually amplifies the narrative’s drama. Where Baz Luhrman’s gloriously silly William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet took place in a dreamland Los Angeles of self-consciously arty chapels and picturesque stage sets washed up by the sea, Almereyda’s New York is grubby and noisy. Ophelia, an amateur photographer who haunts fountains and pools, dashes through the streets on a bicycle; when Hamlet and Horatio prepare for a private talk in a cab, they have to wait for one of those annoying recordings. It’s hilarious—the fevered conspirators climb and in and hear “This is Eartha Kitt, rrowr….” The ghost of Hamlet’s father is a full-blooded one; he leaves footprints on the carpet and grabs his son by the hair to whisper “Murder most foul.” Almereyda takes the fantasy out of the story, and in so doing puts the tragedy—the killings are bloody, realistic, and miserable—back in.
Almereyda does cut the language to ribbons, though. Even at full length, whole scenes and characters are handily excised. So long vaudeville gravediggers. Alas, poor Yorick, you don’t even get a cameo. But the remaining characters are beautifully cast. Bill Murray’s Polonius is a tender-hearted father of a credible brood: Laertes (Liev Schreiber) has his pomposity and stiff neck, watery Ophelia has his dreamy glibness. Polonius is the fool Hamlet describes him as when sucking up to his superiors—a classic corporate yes-man—but his minimalist apartment is overflowing with books, and he speaks wisely to his children. (But no director can find a way out of the distracting absurdity of Hamlet and Gertrude’s lengthy confrontation while Polonius bleeds his life out on the carpet.)
Almereyda, who suspiciously shares a last name with the scatological anagram coined by great lost filmmaker Jean Vigo’s anarchist father, has made films in Pixelvision with the legendary Fisher-Price camera. But his excesses of vision—New York as a ravishing metallica monster, inhumanly scaled—are experimental like those of a scientist, not a callow art-schooler. The play-within-a-play takes the form of a clever and devastating video montage assembled by Hamlet himself. Rather than wallow artily in Hamlet’s seeming mental decline, the script gives true method to his madness, showing him to be precise and sincere only to the few people around him whom he respects. The sarcasm and obfuscatory ramblings are dirt and glitter thrown in the faces of the idiots he scorns. Hamlet’s so-called madness is a way of walling in his soul, but Ophelia’s is a genuine breakdown, the aqueous soul’s response to betrayal.
Woody Allen is so crabbed with hatred and insecurity that, at this point, even his good-natured films reek of it. Small Time Crooks is one of those simple comedies he seems to believe are classics, but despite its breezy plot, this is yet another nonapology for the great artist as evil man.
Tracey Ullman does her broadest, most condescending impersonation yet of one of the “little people” as Frenchy, former exotic dancer and current strident wife of hapless ex-felon Ray (Allen). As they argue in a desultory fashion—the opening scene feels improvised and shabby, although the zingers pop out on cue—Ray unveils his plan to knock over a bank with the help of some grifting pals so stupid they think he’s the smart one. They buy an empty pizza parlor and set to tunneling out of the basement and into the bank’s vault, putting Frenchy in charge of a cookie-baking business out front as a cover. Ironically, they drill right into a dress shop, but the cookies become the talk of New York, attracting local news coverage and hordes of customers. Soon, Ray and Frenchy are legitimately rich beyond their wildest dreams, but while Frenchy strives to swan with socialites, taking lessons in wine, art, and comportment from the caddish David (Hugh Grant), Ray longs for the simple life and the excitement of thievery. “If I can’t get a cheeseburger,” he asks after one too many quail breasts on wild-mushroom polenta, “what does it all mean?”
So there’s the plot. That thing dancing over the horizon wearing red and carrying a neon sign reading “They lose their fortune but find each other” would be the ending. And that smell is Allen’s contempt for his subjects. Ray and Frenchy do not say ciao to the good life because love is more important than money, but because they don’t deserve the good life. Frenchy’s dreams of avarice amuse Ray when they’re poor, but when she begins to live on champagne wishes and caviar dreams, Allen’s portrait of the jumped-up prole grows more scathing and cruel. He ensures that she will be punished on every end, defrauded by her accountants and scammed out of romance by the unscrupulous David. Now 102, Allen has lived for too long what he believes to be the intellectual life—but what is really a coddling la-la-land of Upper East Side parties and high-powered friends. He hasn’t the most rudimentary notion of how a business works, how the little people talk, or even what a down-to-earth Chinese restaurant might be. Ray finds greasy, salty redemption when he runs into Frenchy’s vague cousin May (Elaine May)…at the chichi Ruby Foo’s. Allen does, on the other hand, seem to know his wines. The point to all of this, apparently, is that life happens, control is a fantasy, free will is a hoax, and “the heart wants what it wants.” So if you find yourself in bed with your stepdaughter, well, close your eyes and think of Elaine’s. CP