When Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out in 2000, it seemed a vision of the excess of America and New York City in particular (its locale). The film updates the tale of that woefully split Prince of Denmark to the young woefully split, hipster/indie-filmmaker son of the “King and CEO” of the “Denmark Corporation”. From the get-go, one can tell that this is not a Kenneth Branagh film. First of all, there’s the presence of such non-Shakespeareans as Steve Zahn and Bill Murray, idling around in suits and punked-out leather jackets making jibes from the Bard’s lines. Second of all are all the backdrops, constantly moving tableaux of the New York elite ranging from the billboards on Times Square to the interior of the Guggenheim museum. Instead of a proscenium or a replica of mid-1500s Denmark, we are given the interiors of lofty skyscrapers, looking down on the rest of New York City.
Obviously, there is a parallel to be made here and Almereyda tries explicitly to make it: While back in Shakespeare’s time the kings and princes might have been the elite, in the year 2000 it is the heads of corporations, the ultra-rich. It is a world where Hamlet does not engage in self-reflection via mirror or a soliloquy, but instead by recording his own monologues via a DV camera, attempting to piece together the disparate feelings in his life. The movie feels somewhat stuck between the world it attempts to create and its faithfulness to the text–leather jackets or no, they’re the same lines they’ve been saying since Shakespeare’s time–but at least, for the time, it was admirable in its attempt.
However, looking back on the film in 2009, it seems in someways dated and someways prescient. While it might be strange to talk of a film from the same decade as “dated”, it is notable that the CEOs of ambiguous corporations such as the fictional “Denmark Corporation”, or say Enron, are no longer regarded as kings or unreachable figures. Every week in the New Yorker or the New York Times is another tale of high-paid CEOs as extremely fallible humans, in lesser or greater parts responsible for the current recession. When we hear about people like Countrywide or Bear Stearns, companies going under, we find out that their CEOs were car salesmen or bridge players, drafted in a competive game of chance and hucksterdom into higher and higher ranks of the organization, leading to their own personal downfalls. In a world where we’ve lost both significant portions of the automobile and financial industries, not only are the rich inclined to keep a low profile, but many of them have been deposed. In other words, it is unsure that Hamlet would even have his Denmark to worry about.
In other ways, in the realms of excesses, Almereyda’s Hamlet seems prescient. Kyle MacLachlan’s Claudius rises to the top of the Denmark Corporation through fairly literally back-stabbing that seems only slightly more figurative in the business world today. Bill Murray’s Polonius seems to be a brainless yes-man, dressed up in a suit, attempting politics in what seems like a pre-Bush-era sendup. Even Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet seems to be a blogger, involved in web-video before the trend came on.
Still, other parts, like the replacement of Hamlet‘s famous “play-within-a-play” (“The play’s the thing by which I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet says), with an experimental video seems a bit much, if maybe only to show the whineyness and degradation of Shakespeare’s archetype in our current times.
Still, looking back on Almereyda’s Hamlet of the 2000s proves and interesting time capsule of what life once was, both far and not-so-long ago.
The Bard Goes Global continues this week at The Walter Reade Theater. Tickets on sale now.
Nicholas Feitel also writes for his blog, Feitelogram