Hamlet's father slumps over onto his desk, poisoned by his friend Klaus. Hamlet walks in, eating a massive slice of ham. Boorishly, he chuckles at the man he deems to be sleeping and then casts a rug over his shoulder. Aki Kaurismaki's film about Hamlet introduces him as a nonentity who does not realise his own place in the plot- and he continues to film Hamlet in such a way, shading in with his crayons whilst the Board take decisions over his head and pushing Ophelia continually for sex. This is not Hamlet as you have ever seen him- gone is the Shakespearian soliloquay, gone the wordplay that Tom Stoppard revelled in in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, gone the complexities of motivation and morality that the play evokes, gone the structure of silence- the silence that permeates Hamlet's father's grave and Hamlet's 'madness'. In their place, Kaurismaki turns to the plot of the play and finds resources to make what is a film-noir of the fifties: in the place of feuding barons and the King of Norway, we have business managers and a take over- in place of the King of England, we have a business associate of Klaus called, no doubt with silent commentary, Murdoch. Rosencratz and Guildenstern are dead and we see their bodies flop over the side of an ocean liner.
Kaurismaki's Hamlet is an adaptation but it is not uninteresting for all that. The film concentrates on Hamlet, the feckless but by no means sexless scion of his house, a caricature of the millionaire's playboy son, and his activities. During the film we see his selfishness: we are continually told of it by the other characters and when his father's ghost arrives, Hamlet tells the ghost to hurry up because dinner is waiting. Almost the only thing Hamlet seems to want is sex with Ophelia: almost the only thing he seems concerned by is his own preservation (and his weight!). All the other characters are the same: all of them are cynical and selfish. Klaus nibbles at his lust for power, Gertrude is a cipher for the actions of the male characters around her and Kaurismaki takes out her seduction of Hamlet, Polonius is as stupid and pompous as in Hamlet but has less of the counciller and more of the corporate climber about him. This is a world which turns on money- even Hamlet's driver (an inserted character) seeks money for his quest is to protect his fellow workers down at the factory. Ophelia does not love Hamlet at all- but is playing a game with him to obtain influence over the company. Money, Kaurismaki is saying, is what makes the world go round in this system of society: money is the sole reason for existance- money drives forward murder and the soft, as Polonius says, go to the wall.
When we turn to the source text and compare it to Kaurismaki's play, we notice that whereas the source was in colour, this so to speak is in black and white. The moral tension and moral values of the original have drained from the skin of the film- from the skin of society. This story is deliberately a retelling of Shakespeare for another society. One might term the play as a play about honour and fealty and familial loyalty: in which case Kaurismaki's film is an attack on the existance of all those things in modern society. If you make Hamlet, for Kaurismaki, you have to now make it like this. The great speeches are flat, the great moments make no sense in our world of pallor. Hamlet, the great production of the renaissance, can only make sense to the modern world as a dark drama about money and the neverending selfish quest for gain that defines the modern world. In this sense Kaurismaki betrays both a Marxist antipathy to what the desire for wealth does to people and a true appreciation of the play: his updating is intended to be a statement about what kind of things today can be said and what kind of things cannot be said. In the world of McDonalds, a Big Mac is more important than to be or not to be and noone looks around enough to tell a hacksaw from a handsaw.
Kaurismaki's Hamlet is dark- very dark and as soon as you think about it it becomes darker. The pathetic villainy of the characters never rises to an Iago like existential Satanic quality, but rather is mundane and boring. It reminds me of Robert Bresson's approach to the twentieth century: particularly in contrast to the original text, Kaurismaki has crafted a distopian world in which he wishes to persuade us we live. The imaginative effort is first rate: the film is replete with commentaries on the conventions of film noir and popular music, the darkness is sustained and implausibilities within the plot are a commentary on possibilities within Shakespeare's plot. As a sophisticated answer across to the centuries to the bard this works and deserves a watch.