‘Grand Theft Hamlet’ Review: To Be Or Not To Be Shot While Staging A Shakespeare Classic – SXSW

For the most recent precedent for Grand Theft Hamlet, you’d probably have to go back nearly 20 years, to a 2006 episode of South Park. Titled “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” it found Cartman marshaling his friends to take on a super-advanced rogue player with a posse of killer crabs who has taken to killing everyone in his path in the Tolkienesque greenfields of Azeroth. This virtual psychopath sends shivers down the spines of the programmers at WoW’s corporate HQ (“Gentleman, we are dealing with someone who has absolutely no life…”).

After Sam Crane and Pinny Grylls’ documentary debuted earlier this week at SXSW, however, it is only a matter of time before directors see the multitude of possibilities to be mined from the gaming world, not least because the technical advances made in recent years mean that even the most basic console games can blow up to fill a cinema-size screen quite comfortably.

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Character definition isn’t quite there yet, but that uncanny valley gives this offbeat doc a surreal charm with the roll call of freaks its protagonists meet on the way — it should be stated early on that the makers of Grand Theft Hamlet are British and somewhat middle class, which means the disjunct between the genteel nature of its endeavor and the garish setting of Grand Theft Auto (“A violent and brutal world where almost anything possible”) is very funnily heightened as a result.

The film begins in January 2021, where out-of-work actors Sam Crane and Mark Oosterveen are kicking their heels while London’s theaters stay closed during the UK’s third lockdown. To combat what Mark calls “the crushing inevitability of your pointless life,” the pair take to playing Grand Theft Auto V for a bit of cathartic escapism: a chance to “blow stuff up and shoot people.”

The world of Los Santos doesn’t take long to get used to, which is handy since the film never once leaves the game. Sam and Mark hang out in casinos, playing the slots, drinking champagne, pausing only to shoot the doorman before heading off in a car that weaves dangerously from side to side as they ponder their future as thespians. By chance (or is it really?), they stumble across the Vinewood Bowl, igniting a conversation about putting on a play there. How far would they get without being fought or, more likely, murdered? As if to answer that question, the cops show up in a helicopter and open fire.

Nevertheless, the pair press on with their ambitious project, trying to audition fellow players and striking gold with DJ Phil, a chap who appears topless in a top hat. DJ Phil is a mum and literary agent who loves Hamlet, but she disappears when her son, whose avatar it actually is, returns and locks her out of his account. Nevertheless, others show interest too, like the disco-dancing alien ParTebMosMir, whose audition piece is the Koran, and Dipo Ola, who looks to be the ideal casting for the lead until he gets an acting job in the real world.

Perversely, although Crane and Grylls’ film is set in a game famous for its brutality and excess — and, as we are reminded constantly, everybody dies in Shakespeare’s play — Grand Theft Hamlet looks for its hidden corners and empty spaces, finding a wholly unexpected but really quite affecting sense of Hopper-esque melancholy. There’s also a dash of Samuel Beckett, too, as Sam and Mark are forced to address the futility of their project and by extension the futility of art itself (“It’s just a silly idea. No one cares”). As a result, this could be one of the best films yet to come out of the pandemic, beautifully articulating the sense of isolation and introspection it engendered but also the digital camaraderie that emerged via online interactions and RPGs such as this.

The film does hit some rocks, notably when it comes to staging the play itself, with its three-hour-plus running time. There are also some conversations that feel a little scripted — understandably so — in order to give the film the emotional depth it needs for the big finish. But the premise is a winner, and there’s a lot to enjoy as Mark and Sam talk iambic pentameters while bullets fly, planes crash and bazookas unload. Even the premiere suffers a hiccup, when a blimp malfunctions and tragically wipes out the entire audience. But as Sam and Mark say, “You can’t stop the production just because somebody dies.”

Title: Grand Theft Hamlet
Festival: SXSW (Documentary Feature Competition)
Director/screenwriters: Sam Crane, Pinny Grylls
Cast: Sam Crane, Mark Oosterveen, Jen Cohn
Sales agent: Altitude
Running time: 1 hr 29 min

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