SXSW Film Review: Grand Theft Hamlet

“To be or not to be” in a virtual reality mid-pandemic? Fantastic.

If there is one thing of which the totally excellentGrand Theft Hamlet reminds you, it’s that we all went a little bit mad in 2020 and 2021.

In January of 2021, London actors Sam Crane and Mark Oosterveen were extremely out of work. Like all of us, they were in lockdown and going a little stir crazy. They (and Sam’s co-director and wife, Pinny Grylls) start killing time (and the occasional NPC) in Grand Theft Auto. After finding an empty outdoor amphitheater in the game, they decide to stage a production of Hamlet. This is, as you might expect, a little harder than it sounds – especially when every third person you meet in the game is trying to kill you, possibly with a grenade launcher. Or a fighter jet.

Soon, a small band of folks from around the world decide to aid Crane and crew, including an actor pal who would make a terrific lead, ParTeb, a Tunisian fellow skinned as a naked alien with an impressive behind, and a few Americans. They have to make time to cast, rehearse, and execute the play (an edited version, of course) not to mention the fact that, oh yeah, real life is also a thing to deal with. (Sam and Pinny have kids, while Mark is the end of his immediate family line, and his investment in the Hamlet experiment plays out very differently than it does for his pals.)

This whole project results in absolute hilarity (the in-game movement of people not used to playing a game is never not funny, and everyone being heavily armed is even funnier), but the film is also exceptionally moving. These are folks in the middle of a global crisis making a play in a video game that is becoming a movie. Yes, they are doing it to give themselves something to do but they are also trying to save their sanity, to make meaning in a historical moment that had world leaders throwing up their hands when they weren’t washing them of the problem. This is a story about a thousand things at once, from art’s role in helping us hold on to something larger than ourselves to attempts to find community in grim circumstances to finding narrative in dystopia to the immortality of Shakespeare to the nihilism of contemporary video games. It’s wonderful stuff, probably one of the strongest docs to debut at SXSW in a long time.

Read Richard Whittaker’s interview with filmmakers Sam Crane and Pinny Grylls.

Grand Theft Hamlet

Documentary Feature Competition, World Premiere

Wednesday, March 13, 10pm & 10:30pm, Alamo South Lamar

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SXSW Film 2024, Grand Theft Hamlet

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