Shot in New York City on a tight $2 million budget. Almereyda
first chose Ethan Hawke as his Hamlet. He then began assembling an unlikely crew
of American actors, among whom the most intriguing choice was Bill Murray, who
was cast as Polonius. Diane Venora, a distinguished actress who had been the
gender-bending Hamlet of Joseph Papp’s 1983 stage production, accepted the role
of Gertrude. The teenaged Julia Stiles, who like Hawke started acting in film as
a child, would be a "new" Ophelia. Liev Schreiber, known in independent film
circles and a seasoned stage actor who had done his own Hamlet, agreed to be
Ophelia’s brother Laertes. The extraordinary Sam Shepard, playwright and
sometime actor, signed on to do the Ghost. And the crucial role of the
fratricidal Claudius, who looms large in this production, was assigned to Kyle
MacLachlan, a David Lynch favorite. The photo below shows Almereyda directing
Sam in a scene.
Mike LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle:
"Hamlet" shows signs of authentic life in its first half hour. The ghost of
Hamlet's father comes through the glass of a high-rise office building and tells
his son the whole story about getting murdered and how unsettling and
inconvenient it was to be sent into the afterlife with no warning. The
father-son interaction between Hawke and Sam Shepard as the ghost is
convincing, and Almereyda's eschewing of special effects is tasteful and gives
the scene an uncluttered impact.
Matthew Turner, View London:
Thankfully weighing in at a good two hours shorter than Branagh’s uncut 4-hour
Hamlet, Michael Almereyda’s film proves that Shakespeare’s timeless play is
still capable of springing a few surprises... The acting is superb – Hawke more
than holds his own in the title role... In short this is an imaginative and
exciting update, lacking only the decent swordfight the ending demands.
Elvis Mitchell, NY Times:
Director Almereyda goes to the heart of things and has given Shakespeare a
distinctively American perspective. ''Hamlet'' is a movie about urban isolation
and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained
royalty. To develop the distrust and miscommunication - a contemporary spin on
the Shakespearean theme of people being out of touch with their natural
environments - bits of dialogue are filtered through other sources, like
overheard phone conversations. Mr. Almereyda's use of technology is fascinating
and well thought out; Hamlet's dead father (Sam Shepard), for example, is
first glimpsed on video screens. Hamlet's ''get thee to a nunnery'' speech to
Ophelia becomes an unrelenting tantrum; it follows her home and continues to
attack her when she turns on her answering machine.
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid:
According to Almereyda, Hawke is the first under-30 Hamlet ever filmed, and he
does an admirable job. His Hamlet is spoiled, brooding, and artistic... Liev
Schreiber plays Laertes and shines above nearly everyone else. Equal to him is
Diane Venora as Hamlet's mother Gertrude. Kyle MacLachlan is fine as Claudius,
and Sam Shepard is memorable as the Ghost of Hamlet's father. Julia
Stiles seemed a little lost as Ophelia, but Steve Zahn may be the screen's best
Peter Rainer, New York Magazine:
If Ethan Hawkes's performance doesn't carry the day, there are others that do,
chiefly Liev Schreiber's elegantly seething Laertes, Sam Shepard's rude,
startlingly present Ghost, Diane Venora's Gertrude, and (yes) Bill Murray's
Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews:
Hawke is a bland but effective Hamlet; Stiles is a childish and limited Ophelia;
Murray is a deliciously hammy Polonius; MacLachlan is a transparently ruthless
CEO; Diane Venora is a physically manipulative Gertrude, whose performance
brings out both a mother's anguish for her son and her lust for her husband;
Schreiber is simply brilliant as an affecting Laertes, playing his part more in
the traditional Shakespearean mode; Sam Shepard makes for a hell of a
forceful ghost; while, Steve Zahn is a sleazy Rosencrantz and Dechen Thurman (a
relative of Hawke's) is his sleazy counterpart Guildenstern.
Film critic Harvey S. Karten:
The real flaw in this production is that despite our awareness of Hamlet's need
to avenge his father's murder, nothing important appears to be at stake in this
movie. The performers go about their duties in a stolid manner, reciting the
words as though a requirement of their high-school English teachers but without
recognizable passion. The element of fear is missing. Hamlet's father appears as
a ghost who is simply not frightening though Shepard is the only actor in
this case who transmits Shakespearian depth.
Arthur Lazere, Culture Vulture:
In this up-to-the-minute setting, with edgy and stylized cinematography, the
words remain Shakespeare's great poetry and, if the overall result is highly
uneven, some of it works well enough to lead to disappointment that it isn't
more consistently effective... Hamlet's scene with the Ghost of his slain
father, without gimmicks to muck it up, is grippingly played and deeply
involving. Both Hawke and Shepard demonstrate mastery of their roles
here; the drama stays in the forefront and the anachronistic contrast of
language and setting fades into unimportance.
Rob Blackwelder, Spliced Wire:
While it's burdened by some shortcomings, this Y2K date-stamped take on the
melancholy Dane - appropriately played by Ethan Hawke as a brooding, film
student heir to a business empire called the Denmark Corp. - is nonetheless a
mildly compelling visitation on the Bard's most complicated tragic hero...
Keeping their end up are Sam Shepard, perfectly eerie as Hamlet's phantom
father, and Diane Venora, an experienced Shakespearean actress, who is
mesmerizing as the queen.
Wesley Morris, San Francisco Examiner:
Is the film the moodiest, most atmospheric, audacious Ethan Hawke movie ever
- or an inventive recalibration of Shakespeare to comment on a corporate
culture? Sometimes the film manages to be a heated synthesis of the two, perhaps
aided by Almereyda's minced, pan-and-scan handling of the text...
Shepard unlocks the text with patient, hushed danger. He gets behind the
words and pours gasoline over them, then rocks the Ghost's fury and betrayal.
Film critic Susan Granger:
Paranoia is the theme, augmented by depression, despondency, and dementia - all
running rampant at the Hotel Elsinore and the Denmark Corporation. Far better
than Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo and Juliet," this visually stunning "Hamlet" is
filled with intelligent, inventive performances - not only the leads but Liev
Schreiber's furious Laertes, Julia Stiles's petulant East Village hippie
Ophelia, Sam Shepard's mysteriously remote Ghost (who evaporates into a
Pepsi machine) and, above all, Bill Murray's Polonius.
Shari L. Rosenblum, CineScene:
Kyle MacLachlan's Claudius is divinely evil in both act and character - plaster
cast megalomanager - cold, corporate, capitalist, self-interested - fratricide
is only the most bloody of his sins. While Sam Shepard is remarkably
moving as a quietly forceful paternal presence, no more or less ghostly in
effect than an image on a surveillance monitor. Steve Zahn's Rosenkrantz hits
all the notes with perfect pitch, both as comic relief and murderous foil.