An interesting idea and adaptation not particularly well-done, director Michael Almereyda takes Shakespeare's words and characters and brings them into New York City 2000. A rather late entry into the mass of films that have updated literature for modern audiences, the film has some positive points, but is unfortunately sunk from some unlikely places.
I'm hearing the words, but I'm not feeling the drama. I am following the story, though, which has the president of the Denmark Corporation passing away and the young Hamlet(Ethan Hawke) suspecting foul play is afoot. Or, something like that. In this version, Hamlet is a filmmaker who looks like Ethan Hawke's character stepping out of "Reality Bites" and into this film. It even has Hamlet delivering his famous speech in the action section (although he does pass by the new releases, where "The Horse Whisperer" is still a new release, making me wonder how long ago this was filmed).
Speaking of problems, Hawke is a dissapointment as Hamlet. Although nothing in this movie seems to be particularly energetic (the main direction seems to be "underplay"), I believe the actor is capable of much more. 97's "Gattaca" (which I'm still convinced is one of the best films of the past 5 years) stood out as an outstanding performance full of energy and life, showing what Hawke is capable of. Here, he's back to playing subtle slacker. There are flickers of inspiration in the performance, but as the lead, his low-key performance does not help the already slow pace of the film.
Supporting performances are fairly good, although one suspects that some of the performers are capable of better. Julia Stiles, one of (if not the most) promising young actresses of her generation, does a fairly good job at Ophelia, putting at least some energy into the role. On the other hand, Bill Murray is rather strange as Polonious, as Murray seems to be "just doing his thing", and adding little touches of comedy to the scenes. The guy can't help but go for the laughs, even in something serious and gloomy.
If little drama can be squeezed out of the performances, at least Carter Burwell("Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?")'s score often steps in, adding elegance and emotion to scenes where they wouldn't otherwise be available. Although I'm not sure if it was done for stylistic or budget purposes, the 16mm cinematography of John De Borman at least captures the procceedings well, with some interesting compositions. The pace of the film is often quite slow, but I certainly can't fault the editing, which has taken a story often going 3 or 4 hours down to a hair short of 2. It's simply that the acting, which is suprising given such a fine cast, didn't engage me. It's a film too subtly played for its own good.
VIDEO: This is a respectable presentation of somewhat low-budget material. Like a handful of other films using it for either stylistic (or mainly, budget) purposes, "Hamlet" was shot in 16mm (in this case, by the excellent John De Borman, also responsible for "Saving Grace"). Sharpness and detail throughout the anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) looks very good - although some scenes come off looking rather flat.
As with all 16mm offerings, grain does appear in many scenes, although not as heavily as some of the 16mm films I've seen - some scenes even appear absent of it. There are some other print flaws, though - several small marks do make their appearance known throughout the picture. These are not heavy and/or irritating, but remain very minor distractions. Pixelation and other such problems thankfully don't appear, either.
Colors seemed a bit heavy and bold at times, but generally looked pleasing with no major flaws. Aside from the limitations of 16mm and the grain associated with it, this remains a respectable presentation of the material from Miramax.
SOUND: "Hamlet" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, although there really isn't much going on throughout the movie. Likely coming as no suprise, the majority of the movie is completely dialogue-driven, folding up to mono as we simply have characters face one another to have various conversations. It's really only when Carter Burwell(responsible for many of the Coen Brothers films)'s score enters that the film's audio opens up more. The score is fascinating and dramatic, almost another character in the picture, although occasionally sounding somewhat similar to his score for "Fargo". Dialogue is usually natural and easily understood, although there were some scenes where it was slightly edgy and harsh, but not difficult to listen to.
MENUS:: Menus are basic and non-animated, although background film images are nicely used.
EXTRAS: Nothing much at all in the way of extra features. The trailer for "Hamlet" is actually not included - all we get are promos in the "sneak peeks" section, including "Committed", "Reindeer Games", "Shakespeare In Love", "East Is East", "Stiff Upper Lips" and "Holy Smoke".
Final Thoughts: The movie was an interesting idea, but much of it left me rather cold. Some may find it worth checking out as a rental, and students might find talking about the way it was adapted to be a decent idea for a social studies paper if they need a topic. The DVD presents fairly good audio/video quality, but has very little in the way of extras for the too-high $32.99 retail price.