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That Moment In ‘Hamlet’ (2000) When Bill Murray Saves the Movie

Hamlet is a dramatic, modern-day New York City adaptation of Shakespeare’s immortal story about a son’s plight to avenge his father’s murder.

There is no shortage of Hamlet adaptations at the movies, and dozens more films that have been ‘inspired’ by the story, with Laurence Olivier‘s 1948 interpretation of the Prince of Denmark the most famous and Kenneth Branagh‘s epic 1996 near word-for-word retelling the most complete. It’s arguably the most widely-known play in all of history and a good number of people can probably cite at least one or two quotes from it without ever having seen or read it. Don’t think so. “To be or …” See.

READ MORE: 5 Early Must See Films of Kenneth Branagh

In 2000 writer/director Michael Almereyda took it upon himself to give the new millennium its first crack at the Bard’s tale of intrigue, but with a twist, fully updating the setting to modern New York while retaining the original language of the play. It’s certainly a novel idea. Imagine a Sex in the City movie where everyone talked like characters from an Jane Austen book and you get the idea. Sort of. Critics were split on what to make of it, and the film was barely a blip at the box office, but honestly, any true fan of the play will be taken by the experiment, at least as part of a larger canon of adaptations. It’s a bold film that walks a very narrow line, for which I feel is handled quite well. Let’s take a look.

Hamlet
Hamlet, 2000 © double A Films

If by some reason you don’t know the story, you might want to get hold of the aforementioned films and have a look, or even the 1990 Mel Gibson movie Hamlet, which is rather condensed but still very entertaining. Here, it goes like this: Film student Hamlet (Ethan Hawke) is in turmoil over the sudden death of his father (Sam Shepard) and the suspicious circumstances that led to his Uncle Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) becoming the new CEO of Denmark Corporation, his father’s company. However, it’s Claudius’ prompt marriage to his mother Gertrude (Diane Venora) that is even more distressing, though he finds a bit of distraction in the lovely Ophelia (Julia Stiles) but not enough to prevent him from thinking he might be going a bit mad when his ghostly father starts to appear on closed circuit TV monitors before showing up and telling his son that somethings rotten in Denmark. Time for some sweet vengeance.

READ MORE: 5 Breakout Roles of Ethan Hawke You Have To See

As the setting for this adaptation of the classic tale of revenge is contemporary (well, circa 2000 contemporary) New York City, there’s a strong emphasis on (again, 2000) technology as integral story elements, such as cameras, Polaroids, and television, though all of the dialogue is lifted from the original play, with everyone speaking in Shakespearean prose. This conceit actually works surprisingly well and the choice to keep the original text is smart, simply because it’s so weighty, kind of boxing the narrative into a fable-like experience.

Hamlet
Hamlet, 2000 © double A Films

While the look of the film is sleek for sure, there are stumbles with some casting. I wasn’t sold on Liev Schreiber‘s interpretation Laertes, Hamlet’s longtime friend, and also Stiles can’t quite resonant as strongly as I hoped, mostly because I kept comparing her to Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Winslet. And yes, some choices with modernizing the story, including a forced fencing duel, which doesn’t feel organic with the setting fall a little flat. However, and there is division on this, I found Hawke to be especially good, himself a natural sort of sorrowful and unpretentious-type actor that feels perfectly fit for the dour and burdened prince.

Hamlet
Hamlet, 2000 © double A Films

So, having said all that, my favorite moment in the film is one that centerrs on Laertes, who is, you’ll know, the son of Polonius (Bill Murray), counsel to Hamlet’s father. Laertes is brother to Ophelia, and has noticed of late his sister’s affection toward the moody and spoiled Hamlet. He’s about to travel to school and has already warned her to be wary as the brooding film student, as he will surely break her heart. Polonius, now a loyal servant of the new CEO and caring father for his son and daughter, has come to bid his boy a safe journey, but before he goes, offers some words of wisdom, perhaps the most well known ever proffered.

The speech is one of the most famous ever written, it containing the venerable “To thine ownself be true” as well as a few other notable bits of worthy advice. It carries a great deal importance for Polonius, who is proud of his son and is very well versed on the matters of the real world, and as such, strives to make it clear as quickly as he can how Laertes must conduct and protect himself.

Hamlet
Hamlet, 2000 © double A Films

What I like about the scene is its verticality and movement, with the actors shifting about in a synchronized back and forth that visually expresses very well both Laertes’ anticipation and perhaps unpreparedness for leaving and his father’s spontaneous need to educate. The room is divided by a loft, where Ophelia sits in silence, snapping pictures with her camera of the two men. The room is surrounded on all side by rows of books, suggesting a history of erudition and breadth of knowledge at least available to the boy. Laertes himself never speaks, instead, moving about packing and sorting, his move almost impromptu.

Hamlet
Hamlet, 2000 © double A Films

I love when Polonius tucks a thick wad of cash, unseen by his son, into the pocket of Laertes’ jacket, while at the same time advising, “costly thy habit as thy purse can buy”, which means to purchase clothing for quality not for show, which is followed by the now famous, “neither a borrower nor lender be”, something that Polonius himself seems to recognize as a bit of counsel he just broke on his own. That’s a nice touch to the character, breaking the rules to secretly tend to his son. I don’t know why, but the way Murray handles this … well, it’s kind of moving, how a father, in his mind, has the right to veer from the very things he expects of his son.

Murray is really good, so natural and comfortable with the tricky dialogue, his delivery paced and energetic while also urgent and feeling unrehearsed. As Schreiber skips about the room looking as if he’s hitting all the prescribed marks, Murray layers the whole thing with a terrific sense of fluidity. He genuinely seems to be listing off and giving voice to his words as the pop into his mind. He’s a bit breathless, charged, remorseful and overwhelmed. It’s fun to watch.

For fans of goofs in cinema, there’s also a pretty glaring one right in the middle of this otherwise exceptional scene. Just as Polonius and Laertes move to the bottom floor, a boom mic is clearly visible for several seconds moving over Murray in the mirrored surface of the loft. No big deal, but a fun bit where the curtain is pulled back on the art of movie making.

Hamlet
Hamlet, 2000 © double A Films

Hamlet in any form is well worth watching, and this interesting adaptation, while not quite as effective as most others, is an ambitious and clever experiment that deserves a look. With a terrific performance by Hawke and an even better one by Murray, it makes for a solid attempt at updating the play and welcoming the work to the modern era, and one scene with Polonius preparing his son for the wilds of the world is the film’s best. It’s a great cinematic moment.

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