Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyda. Miramax Films, 2000.
Ann Thompson
King's College, London

Thompson, Ann. "Review of Hamlet, directed by Michael Almereyda." Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 22.1-6 <URL:

With Ethan Hawke (Hamlet), Kyle MacLachlan (Claudius), Bill Murray (Polonius), Liev Schreiber (Horatio), Sam Shepard (Ghost), Julia Styles (Ophelia), Diane Venora (Gertrude).

  1. On Thursday 6 April an advance screening of this Hamlet was offered to registrants at the Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting in Montreal; it had not been advertised in the advance programme for the conference. I attended somewhat reluctantly because (a) I had arrived from London the day before and was suffering from jet-lag and (b) I felt an audience of specialist Shakespeare scholars would be grudging, if not hostile. I need not have worried: I had no difficulty staying awake and the general response was positive. The director, Michael Almerayda, who had not surprisingly expressed some trepidation at the beginning of the evening, braved a good thirty minutes of questions and comments after the screening, during which he spoke very intelligently about the choices he had made and the constraints (mainly budgetary) he had faced.

  2. This Hamlet (which comes in at under 2 hours) is very different from Branagh's 1996 version, though it has some things in common with Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. It was filmed last year on location in New York and it translates the events of the play into the world of contemporary big business -- several scenes take place in the skyscraper headquarters of the Denmark Corporation, Ophelia goes mad in the Guggenheim museum, and Hamlet delivers "to be or not to be" as he roams the aisles of a Blockbuster video store. Instead of "words, words, words" we get images, images, images, many of them on television and computer screens. The Ghost is first seen on a security video camera, "The Mousetrap" is a film within-the-film, and Hamlet, on a plane to England, waits for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to succumb to the hospitality service, then gets their laptop computer down from the overhead bin and alters the instructions stored on the disk. The film makes extensive use of mobile phones and intercom devices and ends with a newscaster announcing the succession of Fortinbras as CEO and solemnly intoning the Player King's words "Our wills and fates do so contrary run / That our devices still are overthrown, / Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own."

  3. This is a relentlessly urban Hamlet, with the (severely truncated) graveyard scene representing the only encounter with the natural world. All the characters seem trapped in busy, noisy, restless modern lives; not until "The rest is silence" did we get a break from the sound-track of music, traffic and other ambient noise. If anything, I would have preferred to have even fewer of the original words: it was odd in this context for people to be talking about kings and nunneries, and the actors were sometimes struggling to make Shakespeare's rhetoric seem appropriate to their circumstances. The film does not achieve Luhrmann's level of ingenious and stylish modernization, but with a fraction of Luhrmann's budget it is just as watchable: most of my colleagues who saw it found it thoughtful and (at least) interesting; many of us were more enthusiastic.

  4. The film begins with Hamlet musing "I have of late -- but wherefore I know not -- lost all my mirth," but apart from that and the ending it mainly follows the sequence of Shakespeare's play and succeeds in making the story quite gripping. It has some quite radical cuts: the opening scene, most of the dialogue of "The Mousetrap," the Gravediggers and Osric are all missing. Almereyda said in answer to a question that he had filmed Hamlet's conversation with the Gravedigger but had not found a way to make it work in the contemporary setting so had reluctantly abandoned it. There is very little extraneous material: perhaps most noticeably a short television sequence with a Vietnamese priest or monk discussing "being" which leads up to and successfully defamiliarises "To be or not to be."

  5. The performances are uniformly strong: Kyle MacLachlan gives considerable depth to Claudius and Liev Schreiber is a quietly sympathetic Horatio (rewarded by the continuing presence of a female Marcella as his companion). Ethan Hawke is a nervous and youthful Hamlet in a hooded sweatshirt, haunted by the unnervingly solid presence of Sam Shepard as a malign Ghost; Bill Murray evinces a subtle combination of geniality and ruthlessness as Polonius. According to the director, Diane Venora "knew Hamlet better than any of us," having played Hamlet as well as Ophelia, and she turns in a painful and compelling Gertrude. Julia Styles as Ophelia gets some of the film's biggest set-pieces: in addition to her mad scene at a smart reception at the Guggenheim, her drowning in a bright blue pool (at Lincoln Center?) has been prefigured by a version of 2.2 in which she has been present while her father reads Hamlet's love-letter to Claudius and Gertrude while they disport themselves by an indoor swimming pool high up in a building in mid-town Manhattan.

  6. In conclusion, I was very glad to have the opportunity to see this film and look forward to seeing it again under more favourable circumstances (and with better technology than the conference hotel could supply). I would be interested to see what students make of it: I imagine it would appeal to them, though it is not as explicitly directed at a young audience as Luhrmann's Romeo. It made a powerful contrast to the following evening's conference entertainment: a trip to a production of Les Peines d'Amour Perdues at the Théâtre Denise-Pelletier which seemed to me worthy, old-fashioned and rather dull; the women's spectacular but immobilising dresses were the stars of the show. This was a production for the archive, whereas Almereyda's film reflects the life of the streets on which it was made. It is surely encouraging for our profession that young film-makers still want to tackle Shakespeare and that actors are prepared to participate for uncertain financial returns (Miramax picked the film up for distribution at a late stage). They say Hamlet has been filmed more often than any story except Cinderella and this example proves there is cinematic life in it yet.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk.

© 1999-, Lisa Hopkins (Editor, EMLS).