Monday, January 24, 2005

Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles: Hamlet for an existential moment

Over the weekend, Cloud and myself watched the 'Ethan Hawke in New York' version of Shakespeare's magnificent play Hamlet. I have to say that, for all the criticisms it received for editing the text - and at just 112 minutes it runs way shorter than several other versions, and is over half the length of Branagh's magisterial stage/cinematic vision - I find this one of the most effective updates of Shakespeare produced in recent times. Shakespeare's narratives offer some of the most flexible texts available to those seeking to deal with the root issues of human nature and experience, and thus it is inevitable that they are repeatedly returned to and explored. As the Harlesdon Shakespeare experience revealed, the text can bring to life many contemporary concerns even as the language may appear florid and impenetrable.

Michael Almereyda brings to life the complex relationships - both business and personal - of these figures, and in locating them within the existential angst of corporate and familial New York he also succeeds in lending them an acute relevance that for some audiences can be lost through the use of a past historical moment. (It is easier to trip over the language issues when the presentation is in a setting before the last century). For me, one of the best things about the film is how Almereyda draws a beautiful portrayal of Ophelia from young Julia Stiles. A fan of JW Waterhouse's stunning image, one of the few paintings to truly capture the desperate heartache of Ophelia's madness, I found this version of the character one of the best I have seen. Her scream of anguish in the cavernous spiral of the Guggenheim Museum is utterly haunting. For those who wish to compare it with some less compelling versions (who shall remain nameless here) it is worth seeking out.

Of course, all this is by way of an introduction to considering other favourite Shakespeare's on screen: I will return to thise thought over the next few days, but given how cinema and TV consistently return to the Bard for inspiration it may be worth considering what makes for a good interpretation on screen, since the cinematic and televisual canvas offer both new possibilities and simultaneously new difficulties not confronted by stage versions.

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