I recently gave the Patrick Stewart modern Macbeth a view, and was delighted. So when I saw a modern rendering of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke, I allowed my expectations to rise and rented it. I should have known better.
Macbeth is a good play. Hamlet is not. There are so many problems with Hamlet that even under the surest of guidance, it is a mixed bag. I can’t remember ever liking a performance of it. Strangely, the New York Shakespeare Festival version with Kevin Kline works the best. It succeeds in providing what the play itself does not: consistent motivation of the title character.
The Ethan Hawke production is a mess. In order to make this morally ambiguous play more dramatic, writer/director Michael Almereyda over simplifies most the characters. Claudius is almost unrecognizable; apart from a few brief scenes of self accusation, it seems his main crime is making out with Gertrude in public. (Old love is disgusting!) Despite some fine acting on the part of Liev Schreiber, Laertes has a very one-note fifth act. Perhaps most annoying, all context is removed from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who become nothing buy lowlife thungs of Claudius.
The film has much else against it. The production design is cluttered without being interesting, and there is far too much use made of video screens. It kept bugging me that this movie was about the royal family of Denmark, even though it all took place in New York. (Maybe I’m being petty.) And some of the acting was what, struggling to be nice, I will call bad. In particular, Bill Murray as Polonius was all wrong. Karl Geary also seemed bad, but it is hard to say because Horatio is a bitch of a part; I pity any actor who must do it.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is not all bad. In fact, the film shows every sign of being a very creative endeavor. I don’t think it works, but the producers were trying to do something new and I applaud that. It has a number of moments that made me rethink scenes. When Hamlet’s father is about to leave, the film does not do the usual ghost fading away saying, “Remember me…” Instead, the ghost embraces Hamlet and tenderly whispers in Hamlet’s ear, “Remember me.” That was great. And there were more, although not many and not as good.
I cannot see how Hamlet can ever really work. Increasingly, I think that theater people like it because it is undramatic. It is a story that could easily work as a novel. That would allow the writer to really question Hamlet’s sanity. This alone would be a great advantage, because if Hamlet’s father’s ghost is real, what’s the play about? Why doesn’t Hamlet just kill Claudius and get it over with? A novel would also allow for a more vague ending. We can’t know for certain that Claudius is guilty, because that makes the whole story a sham. Or it could go in a different direction. For example, Hamlet could know that Claudius is guilty but not certain if Gertrude was. As a play, the only hope is to make Hamlet crazy and instead of the fifth act match, have Hamlet kill himself without resolving the culpability of the others. (Then he could haunt Horatio in Hamlet II: Return of the Prince.)
 This is a very personal thing to me. By my reading of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to be helpful to their friend. And note that Hamlet never says anything to make them think but that he is crazy. His claims that he is not are phrased as riddles. He never expresses his belief that Claudius murdered his father. He never even says that he’s bummed out that his mother married so quickly. In short, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dealing with a bad situation with their asshole friend.