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Movies on the Edge

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000


HAMLET (R) (111 minutes) -- Simple modernization's not the thing when it comes to the Bard, as Baz Luhrmann so clearly demonstrated four years ago with his misguided, abrasive, MTV-age William Shakespeare's Romeo+ Juliet. Luhrmann resorted to transparent gimmickry in an attempt to transport Shakespeare's timeless themes and still-resonant language to a contemporary setting.

Michael Almereyda (Nadja) brilliantly ups the ante with a compelling, moving adaptation of Hamlet so effective in its approach to the great tragedy that even purists may concede a victory. Who needs a period setting -- or a rewrite, a la Ten Things I Hate About You -- when the original play is so relevantly recast in the here and now?

Denmark, a kingdom in the original text, has become Denmark Inc., a multinational corporation ruled by Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan). The yuppie striver inherited the position, and new wife Gertrude (Diane Venora), upon the death of his older brother (Sam Shepard).

Young Hamlet (Ethan Hawke), a slacker filmmaker with a Peruvian knit cap and a goatee, is a glum college kid home on break, disturbed by the new domestic arrangement and spurred on by his father's ghost to investigate his suspicious death.

The design of this particular Shakespearean universe, so organically integrated with the mood and the meaning of the story, is a wonder to behold. Photographed in super-16mm, it's a world of shiny steel surfaces intersecting with expanses of white concrete and glass. The very look of the textures, unerringly bright, clean and bordering on the sterile for the most part, adds to the sense of dread.

The information age, too, is key to the workings of Almereyda's Hamlet. The would-be heir's relationship with his parents and with the lovely, doomed Ophelia (Julia Stiles) is revealed by video flashback. A key conversation between the young woman and her loving, overprotective father Polonius (Bill Murray) is observed from the point of view of a security camera. Faxes deliver news from England. And Hamlet uses a Powerbook to rewrite an order that he be executed by Rosencrantz (Steve Zahn) and Guildenstern (Dechen Thurman).

The famous "To be or not to be" monologue is delivered as the title character cruises the aisles of a Blockbuster video store, his eyes drawn to the colorful boxes lining the shelves of the "action" section, as a background banner screams, "Go home happy."

It's a smart twist, another in a series of visual gambits that combines with uniformly sharp performances to push the narrative toward its inevitable, bloody conclusion.

Opens today at Tampa Theatre and Beach Theater. A-

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