Of the three film versions of Hamlet I’ve recently watched, this one is the most successful in creating a film that is based on but not too closely governed by the text of the play. It offers a commentary on late modern-day capitalism, multi-global corporations that have taken the place of city states and nations. And of course with its Pepsi machines and Blockbuster videos it shows how overwhelmed we are in our lives by corporate names, branded images, and so on.
Technology dominates in this film, with Hamlet’s self-preoccupation represented through his obsession with videos and screens and self-images. Hamlet’s alienation from his mother, from his world, in this film is also the result of living in a hyper-modern and antiseptic urban environment of stark and over-aestheticized architecture and design, where technology sometimes subverts human interaction. Solipsism, isolation, and depression are the governing tones and themes here.
I really like this film for how it insists on the continuing relevance of the play by embedding it in the details of our modern world—the trouble is that many of the images that made seem so present in 2000 are lost on their viewers today. Where are the iPhones? Who today would lug around a video camera like the one Ethan Hawke carries? And what happened to Blockbuster?
Almereyda doesn’t really allow the issues of his contemporary urban setting to enter into the play. Hamlet is a disaffected youth with a taste for bad headgear. The 17th-century plot and language of Hamlet are embedded in the contemporary world of New York City, while for the most part that contemporary world and its issues remains separate from the play itself. If Claudius is the equivalent of a 20th- or 21st century CEO, the murderer of his own brother, what is to be made of that equation?
Bill Murray offers the best Polonius of the three films.