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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | So you’re a big fan of “Hamlet” — but you’ve always felt that Shakespeare’s enduring tragedy comes up a bit short in the blood, betrayal and death departments. Who’d have thought that the stereotypically transcendent land of Tibet would be such a fine vehicle for amping up the tribulations of an outcast prince who feigns insanity when his murdered dad shows up demanding revenge against the uncle who just claimed the throne along with the woman they both love?
Taking place in ancient times under the shadow of the Himalayas, theater and film director Sherwood Hu’s high-altitude “Hamlet” milks the epic scope of its setting for all it’s worth. Outside, it’s all about contemplative long shots of rolling streams, still lakes, snowy grasslands and surefooted yaks. Inside, the claustrophobic royal court scenes evokes dread with painterly framed visions of ornate headgear and armor, intricate fabrics, telling glances and revealing stories enacted by a theater troupe led by a shamanistic wolf-woman who spends her spare time creeping across the smoke and snow-strewn land as she advises our prince and growls at dear old dead dad. There’s so much toil and trouble bubbling, you half expect the witches of Macbeth to make an appearance.
Director Hu doesn’t let that happen, of course. He knows when to pull back (not his instinct, but definitely part of his skill set). A rarity among adaptations, this “Hamlet” manages to come up with a few doozies of its own regarding the story’s classic core elements of conspiracy, deception and familial relationships. That it does so with breathtaking cinematography and a cast of actors who often command your attention when you should be reading subtitles makes this one very compelling reason to venture outside the comfort zone of your winter cave.
In a rare misstep for a venue that thinks things through excessively well: The Rubin Museum of Art’s screening room seating arrangement (round tables and chairs instead of stadium seating) means you’ll be craning your neck if the person in front of you is tall and/or fidgets. I spent a distractingly excessive amount of the 108-minute running time adjusting myself according to the whims of the person I was sitting behind. It was good to see a crowded house, but that took away the option of moving elsewhere — leaving me no choice but to shift and squirm in order to read the subtitles.
PRINCE OF THE HIMALAYAS
Presented by The Rubin Museum of Art, The Shakespeare Society and Asian CineVision
Directed by Sherwood Hu
In Tibetan, with English subtitles
Running time: 108 minutes
Unrated (violence, nudity)
At the Rubin Museum of Art (150 W. 17 St., btw. Sixth & Seventh Aves.)
Screenings on Wed., Jan. 4 & 11 at 7pm; Sun., Jan. 8 at 3:30pm; Sat., Jan. 7 & 14 at 3:30pm & 6pm
For tickets ($12; $5 student rush), call 212-620-5000, x344 or visit rmanyc.org/prince
Museum admission included with purchase of ticket