Video game ’Grand Theft Auto’ plays host to a virtual staging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Grand Theft Hamlet

Source: SXSW

‘Grand Theft Hamlet’

Dirs. Pinny Grylls, Sam Crane. UK. 2024. 89mins

It’s endlessly fascinating how film-makers can peer into more-or-less the same arena and come away with something completely different. Last year’s Knit’s Island was an eerie, uncanny film shot inside the survivalist video game ’DayZ’; now the British riposte comes in Grand Theft Hamlet, in which two out-of-work actors in Covid lockdown decide to stage Shakespeare inside ’Grand Theft Auto’. The French directors of Knit’s, who also made a short inside ‘GTA’, were serious and filmic; Pinny Grylls and Sam Crane are not unserious or unfilmic, but they are also funny, dry and very acute in their construction of a story which is really about masculine insecurity and the redeeming power of art, however it is expressed.

An easy, wry, instantly rewarding watch

Premiering at SXSW, Grand Theft Hamlet is very audience-friendly (possibly too much so at times, thanks to a pushy score). It’s an easy, wry, instantly rewarding watch which can look to good exposure through festivals after Austin. Technically a documentary, it’s very much built by the film-makers – although there so many things inside ‘GTA’ which simply can’t be controlled.

Essentially, though, it’s a buddy movie between Sam (Crane) and his friend Mark (Mark Oosterveen), only seen through their avatars. Sam gets around ‘GTA’ in a tracksuit and hoodie, but Mark’s a little more zipped up in an anorak which we’ll later come to understand reflects his state of mind. When Pinny, Sam’s wife, joins them, she opts for a strangely Brigitte Neilsen-like avatar – but who’s to judge in this world of murder and mayhem? 

Noodling around ‘GTA’ in Jan 2021 as Britain locks down again, shooting random players as they go, Sam and Mark stumble upon a place called Vinewood which has an amphitheatre. For these two suddenly out-of-work, prospect-less actors, it’s a clarion call. A tale told by an idiot seems just about right for the time they are living though, and they decide to stage Hamlet and do an open casting call for a production which they’ll live-stream. People do like to be violent in ‘GTA’ though, as they note: trying not to be killed is the major challenge. “You can’t stop because somebody dies” is not a normal director’s note.

To be or not to be doing this: Sam and Mark and, eventually, Pinny, certainly suffer some slings and arrows, but also, in true Shakespearean fashion, encounter some boon travelling companions. They lose a great actor when he gets a job IRL, although the Quran-quoting lizard Parteb sticks with them to the bitter end, even if he never seems sure what’s going on. There is no fluidity to avatars’ movements, the voices don’t match the mouths, you never know who is going to turn up and when, yet this all does settle into a quest film which has real meaning.

Behind the scenes, meanwhile, Mark is suffering from the solitude of lockdown, while Sam becomes obsessed by the game, avoiding Pinny and their children, all voiced in asides as they build up to the show.

This is a unusual film, in its forced marriage of high and low art and an aesthetic that cannot be controlled by the film-makers even as they try to manage the content. Knit’s Island is possibly the only other feature of its kind, although there have been many short films made inside computer-generated worlds. This sense of novelty should gain it attention, and there’s a very lovely, self-deprecating charm about it too – particularly in the interactions between its two ‘white fortysomething posh blokes’ wandering around a lawless world trying to find themselves. All this makes the anchor of such an old-fashioned score seem so incongruous. The questing duo has trusted ‘GTA’ and its trigger-happy denizens: they just need to trust the audience a little bit more that this new world can be enjoyed without the same old beats.

Production companies: Project 1961, Grasp the Nettle

International sales: Altitude

Producers: Rebecca Wolff, Julia Ton

Screenplay: Pinny Grylls, Sam Crane

Editing: Pinny Grylls

Music: Jamie Perera