Issue 30 (2010)

Iurii Kara: Hamlet 21st Century (Gamlet XXI vek, 2010)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2010

hamletIurii Kara’s 2010 adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy has already attracted a great deal of criticism for being simultaneously frivolous and conventional in its interpretation of the famous play. Some compare Kara’s attempt to set the tragedy in the contemporary Moscow club scene with the attempt of amateur actors to stage Hamlet in Eldar Riazanov’s comedy Beware of the Car (Beregis’ avtomobilia, 1966) (Ivashko). Other critics claim that Kara followed the example of Baz Luhrmann, who filmed his Romeo and Juliet (1996) in a hip suburban setting evoking contemporary Los Angeles, and Michael Almereyda (2000), who follows Hamlet avenging his father’s murder to modern-day New York City (Kichin). A veteran of Soviet and Russian commercial film production, Kara claims that his project is completely original and does not mimic any previous cinematic versions of the tragedy. The filmmaker planned to make his version of Hamlet since the late Soviet era. During his studies at the Film Institute VGIK he even staged his version of Hamlet in a student theater.

Kara wanted to film a version of the play, in which the lead roles are played by young actors. The filmmaker has always felt that his colleagues used actors who were too old for the role of Hamlet: Laurence Olivier was in his fifties while Innokentii Smoktunovskii was in his forties when they played Hamlet (Kichin). In his version of the tragedy, Kara decided to use very young actors because the tragedy is motivated by the fact that young and inexperienced people all of a sudden have to make major decisions in their lives. When middle-aged men enact the same dilemmas it looks somewhat inauthentic, Kara claims.

hamletIndeed, in Hamlet 21st Century, young actors play for young viewers. Gela Meskhi, a recent graduate of the Moscow Arts Theater School and a student of Konstantin Raikin, plays Hamlet; this is Meskhi’s cinematic debut. The young Petersburg actor Danila Kozlovskii plays Laertes. The filmmaker’s daughter, Iulia Kara, plays Ophelia. Several contemporary pop music stars enhance the youthful Sturm and Drang of Kara’s film. Aleksandr Berdnikov, the lead singer of the pop-group Korni (Roots), plays Rosencrantz, and another pop-group, Tokyo, performs several key songs in the film.

While the target audience of the film are teenagers and young adults, who constitute the majority of Russian cineplex attendants, the film does not favor exclusively modern settings and tunes. Stylistically Kara chooses an eclectic bricolage over the stylistic coherence of sight and sound. Kara notes that his soundtrack consists of tunes that are loved by both the fathers and the sons. MTV-style music videos by Tokyo alternate with climactic scenes, such as Ophelia’s death, and the final confrontation of Laertes and Hamlet is accompanied by the songs of the 1970’s rock group Deep Purple. Hopefully, the simultaneously youthful and paternal Russian president will get a chance to see Kara’s Hamlet, since Deep Purple is his favorite rock band. On top of this modern soundtrack, Kara uses music by Johann Sebastian Bach, Edvard Grieg and Antonio Vivaldi.

hamletThe film’s mise-en-scène is also highly eclectic. The vistas of glamorous Moscow night life are followed by the scenes filmed in the sun-lit Vorontsov’s Palace in Alupka and the neo-gothic, fantastic palace of Swallow’s Nest in the Crimea, Ukraine. The super-modern Ferraris and yachts appear next to medieval armor and swords. Claudius and Polonius use cutting-edge surveillance technology and wines spiked with medieval poisons. The settings where postmodern and medieval props coexist and vie for viewers’ attention represent very effectively the suffocating Elsinore-atmosphere of contemporary Russia. This is the Elsinore where medieval court rivalry and poisoning plots go hand in hand with contemporary public relations and political technologies. The question of how to remain a decent human being in such a base community rings extremely topical indeed.

Notably, as opposed to the classical Grigorii Kozintsev film adaptation (1964), which used Boris Pasternak’s translation, Kara decided not to follow any single translation of the play but to create an eclectic pastiche of various translations, classical and modern. For each scene the filmmaker selected a translation which, in his view, fitted best his goals in a particular episode.

hamletWhile numerous pretty boys (Meskhi, Kozlovskii, and Dima Beroev as Horatio) function as eye candies in the film, the major acting is done by veteran actors. Dmitrii Diuzhev plays Claudius, and Viktor Sukhorukov plays Osric. Where in Shakespeare’s play the instrumental function of Osric is limited, in Kara’s film he is a major player who does most of the behind-the-scenes arrangements for assassinations. In this respect Kara follows Kozintsev’s observations that directors should pay more attention to the figure of Osric, who is the ultimate beneficiary of Claudius’s crimes. In Kara’s film Osric murders Ophelia, blows up the yacht carrying Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and orchestrates all of the murders in the final scene. Kara’s Hamlet notes that Osric is the most poisonous snake at the court of Claudius. Eventually, Osric takes advantage of the bloodshed initiated by Claudius, and the film ends with a close-up of Osric.

If film reviewers had a say in the all-important task of coming up with an alternative movie title, I would title this one Claudius. Dmitrii Diuzhev plays the most convincing role in the film. I would argue that Diuzhev, not Meskhi, plays the lead role in the film. Initially Diuzhev was considered for the role of Hamlet. However, Kara decided that he would look better in the role of Claudius. Diuzhev, who became famous for his roles as gangster (Brigade, 2002; Dead Man’s Bluff / Zhmurki, 2005), did not let the filmmaker down: he plays a malicious oligarch with a penchant for lechery and murder so entertainingly and convincingly that the viewer might for a moment forget about all these barely post-pubescent characters reciting famous soliloquies. Perhaps in contemporary Russia the Claudius types are easier to find than Hamlet types.

hamletDiuzhev’s success is also symptomatic of another, new and important development in contemporary Russian cinema—the development of commercial genre cinema. Kara made an action-thriller version of Hamlet, a genre which requires type-casting (good guys and villains) and Diuzhev delivered the type of a villain which he had successfully developed during his earlier career. Moreover, if in his previous films Diuzhev usually played the best supporting gangsters, here he was able to play the Godfather of Elsinore.

Iurii Kara created a teen-oriented, action-driven adaptation of Hamlet. While many commentators—including Armen Dzhigarkhanian, who plays the gravedigger—simply think that Shakespeare’s plays are not easily adaptable to the conventions of Russian theater and cinema (Serebrianskaia), Kara’s adaptation deserves attention for its bold attempt to bring home the classical story in the guise of a contemporary action thriller. The way Iurii Kara tells it—it is a very Russian story after all.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Ivashko, Karina. “Gamlet. Istoriia prodolzhaetsia …” Golos Rossii. 14 January, 2010.

Kichin, Valerii. “Byla—ne byla” Rossiiskaia gazeta. 29 May, 2009.

Serebrianskaia, Viktoriia. “V Krymu snimaiut Gamleta.Krymskoe ekho. 29 May 2009.


Hamlet, XXI Century, Russia, 2010
Color, 142 min.
Directors: Iurii Kara
Script: Iurii Kara
Cast: Gela Meskhi, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Viktor Sukhorukov, Danila Kozlovskii, Iuliia Kara, Armen Dzhigarkhanian
Production: Master Film Studio, Fashion Productions, Supported by the Ministry of Culture, Russian Federation

Iurii Kara: Hamlet 21st Century (Gamlet XXI vek, 2010)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov © 2010

Updated: 01 Oct 10