Perhaps the least important thing about this latest film version of Shakespeare's masterpiece is its setting in modern-day New York. Yes, such locales as the Guggenheim Museum are used wittily; answering machines and faxes are logically worked into the plot; and it was both inspired and entirely appropriate to make the prince of Denmark a moody, introspective filmmaker whose avant-garde collages provide the context for some of his famous monologues. All of which would be so much pleasantly humorous eye-candy if it didn't come hand in hand with a sympathy for and understanding of this remarkable cast of characters. For that, ultimately, is what makes Michael Almereyda's Hamlet such a delight to watch. Forget that the immortal rumination on suicide is placed in a Blockbuster Video aisle and notice instead how Ethan Hawke's own youthful, callow arrogance makes Hamlet's vacillations believable. And how the comical but infantilizing way Bill Murray's Polonius dotes upon his daughter Ophelia (Julia Stiles)--and her mute acceptance of his attentions--lead her to thoughts of a watery grave even before her bout of madness. And also notice how much Claudius truly does love Gertrude (when gazing at her, Kyle MacLachlan's face relaxes from its usual plasticity) and how Sam Shepard's ghost is less vengeful or tortured than stiffened by remorse. These are the shining moments of invention in Almereyda's bold updating of the play, and they are why this will be a film to watch and enjoy long after its setting has made it as much a period piece as Olivier's adaptation, with its broodingly lit castle, or Branagh's, with its gleaming 19th-century court.
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