`Hamlet' says today's gadgets get in the way

Film: Director Michael Almereyda's modern adaptation comments on the alienation caused by our high-tech helpers.

July 01, 2000|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

In Michael Almereyda's production of "Hamlet," Ophelia strews photographs instead of flower petals, Laertes challenges Hamlet to a duel by fax and computer keyboards click along as briskly and ominously as an army on the march.

Machines designed to improve human communication actually impede it, the film seems to say. They make one-on-one interaction unnecessary, even undesirable. Instead of pressing palms, we press our palm pilots.

"We've become so passive," says Almereyda, who conceived and directed what he describes as the first modern-dress production of "Hamlet" on film. (The movie, which chronicles a power struggle in the fictitious Denmark Corporation, opened in Baltimore yesterday.)

"All our contacts are mediated by machines," Almereyda says during a telephone-mediated conversation. "One theme running through the play is the division between thought and action. The more our lives are taken over by machines, the less active we are."

So in one of the film's wittiest images, Ethan Hawke, who plays Hamlet, delivers his famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy in a Blockbuster video store, strolling past endless rows of action films.

Almereyda was born in Kansas in 1960. His mother was a homemaker, and his father published children's books. A background that wholesome might seem at odds with his films, which are characterized by an artsy, atmospheric visual style, technical experiments and an ironic sensibility. Almereyda says, though, that in his heart he remains a Midwesterner, and that the preoccupations common to people living in that part of the United States are reflected in his films.

His first major feature was 1988's "Twister," about a quirky family stuck in their Kansas farmhouse as a storm approaches. It was followed in 1994 by "Nadja," an off-beat vampire film.

Almereyda points out a theme that runs through his work.

"All my films are about dysfunctional families," he says. "I had a happy childhood. But everyone who's ever sat at a dinner table is aware that everyone plays different roles. Your parents act differently when your grandparents are around, and that's a theme that Shakespeare explores brilliantly."

He points out that "Hamlet" also explores another theme that has particular resonance in the Information Age.

"Our production is about contemporary paranoia," Almereyda says. "The way cameras exist in our lives seems to have an obvious correspondence in the play, because everyone in `Hamlet' is spying on everyone else."

To emphasize that point, Almereyda's movie is filled with recording devices - which of course, were filmed by behind-the-scenes recording devices. For instance, when the ghost of Hamlet's father appears, it's captured on a security camera. And when Ophelia is persuaded to collect information about Hamlet to "help" her lover, she wears a wire to their tryst.

But the film's success at driving that point home created another problem for Almereyda: It's awfully difficult to make a movie about alienation without alienating the ticket-buying public.

"That was quite a challenge," he says.

One solution was casting Ethan Hawke in the title role as the gloomy and possibly mad, Prince. "Ethan is one of the most animated people I know," Almereyda says. "There's a natural buoyancy about him that works against the sinking feeling you get when Hamlet is depressed all the time."

At age 27 when the movie was shot, Hawke was the youngest actor ever to play the role on film. In a separate interview (also mediated by telephone), the actor said his youth was an advantage.

"A lot of people think Hamlet is a buffoon because they see a 40-year-old man acting like an adolescent," Hawke says. "In truth, he's a young man with a young man's concerns: innocence vs. corruption, fathers vs. sons. He has problems with his girlfriend, and he has problems with authority."

Hawke says that being in his 20s when the film was made provided him with interesting insights, a perspective he might not have developed if he'd been even a bit older.

In the two years since "Hamlet" was shot, Hawke has taken on the roles of husband and father. But in 1998, he looked at family relationships from the perspective of an adult son, and concluded that the true villain isn't King Claudius, but the purported victim - the ghost of Hamlet's murdered father.

"A lot of people assume that Hamlet is indecisive because they think he should kill Claudius," he says. "But I don't think there's anything in the play that indicates that Shakespeare was in favor of being a vigilante. No good comes from Hamlet killing Claudius."

Hawke sees Hamlet as being similar to Macbeth - a good man who is seduced into betraying his better nature.

"He was so different from his father. His father was a powerful guy, and Hamlet was a flaky artist. I get the impression that he wasn't close to his father in life, so he's touched when his father comes to him for help after death." Hawke thinks that Hamlet was ultimately defeated by his desire for his father's approval.

"As much as we try to separate ourselves from our family dynamics, we never can," he says. "Hamlet's father comes back from the dead and drags him in."

That's an interesting, albeit unusual, interpretation. But Almereyda thinks that Hawke might be onto something; he thinks that Hamlet's tragedy stems from his inability to communicate with his nearest and dearest."`Hamlet' is about the way people reveal and conceal themselves," Almereyda says. "If Hamlet could just tell Ophelia what's going on with him, if he could just have been honest with one person in his family about the ghost, all the deaths could have been averted."

In other words, reach out and touch someone.

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