When most people think of Shakespeare they cringe, thinking of melodrama, costumes, and strange vocabulary. But what happens if you pare down the stereotypical theatrical imagery of Shakespeare and simply concentrate on the characters in the story?
This new version of Hamlet, directed by Campbell Scott (The Spanish Prisoner) and Eric Simonson does just that, and beautifully so. The setting is Americanized (the post-Civil War-era South), the production design simple, and nobody is forcing an accent unknown to them. It makes you want to scrounge for the books you packed away in high school because you didn't feel like figuring them out at the time.
Everyone knows the story of Hamlet by now, so I'll pass on the plot description and stick to appreciating this provocative adaptation.
The production is woven by an impeccable ensemble cast. For instance, Polonius (Roscoe Lee Browne) and his kin (Lisa Gay Hamilton as Ophelia and Roger Guenveur Smith as Laertes) are captured as a family unit -- not just as the councilor of Claudius (Jamey Sheridan) or the unfortunate love interest of Hamlet (Campbell Scott). They are also African-American, which adds yet another layer as to why Ophelia and Hamlet can't end up together, and why Polonius will always be an advisor but never king.
This is just a fraction of how the secondary characters aid in articulating the prison-like world that Hamlet is stuck in. Even the Players, who normally have a quick few shots in a film to show that the play prompted by Hamlet aggravates Claudius (Jamey Sheridan), have strong scenes. When they come up the driveway, Hamlet is pleased to finally have someone to talk to, and Hamlet actually gets a few moments of happiness.
Unlike most adaptations of Hamlet that center on the title character -- almost becoming a vanity piece -- Scott and Simonson wisely choose to give these secondary characters ample screen time. Hamlet is also played with a refreshingly different, layered interpretation. He isn't simply melancholy, or even self-pitying. Scott evokes in Hamlet an intelligence and quiet charisma that keep you focused on his progress throughout the almost-three-hour movie.
Even better, everything is wonderfully underplayed, allowing the viewer to appreciate the feelings conveyed. The words themselves haven't changed but are spoken with human simplicity and not the common theatrical bravura. Monologues blend well into the rest of the dialogue and aren't just set up to remind you that you are watching Shakespeare. This is a coming-of-age story and is played as such instead of shouting, "See, this is a classic!"
A unique fantasy element has also been added so that there is nothing shocking about the method to Hamlet's madness. It is easier to understand the complexity of his emotional upheaval. These moments are set apart simply but effectively through the use of a beating drum. His experience with the Ghost continues to impose on his mind, forcing him into submission. At one point he cuts his own arms with glass, more to come back to reality than as a suicide attempt. Though Shakespeare purists may argue that this wasn't in the original play, it's a powerful scene impossible not to connect with.
This is one of the best Shakespeare adaptations ever filmed. It may be three hours long, but you get so caught up in the motives of individual characters and how they affect one another that you barely notice the time. Highly recommended.