on February 19, 2001
Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, at 153 minutes, is no popcorn flick. However, in order to get the film down to this rather long length, Olivier had to make significant cuts to the famous Shakespearean play. As a film that won four Oscars, this is (was) mainstream entertainment. Presenting Hamlet in its entirety (or even close to its entirety) under these circumstances was therefore an impossibility. Olivier's modifications come in three forms: small deletions from speeches and conversations, "streamlining" of main story lines, and cuts of entire subplots. The first, least drastic change, leads to the second, and finally the third, and greatest, of the changes. The cutting of lines has the least effect on the production's ability to tell the story. The removed lines are usually unnecessary and repetitive, and the transitions are smooth. Without a written version of the text in front of him, a viewer (unless he knows the play extraordinarily well) can rarely pick out where a line has been cut. A good example of this seamless cutting follows the ghost's exit in the bedroom scene. Hamlet's speech to the queen (Act III, scene iv, lines 144-159) is cut approximately in half, by cutting 2-3 lines from three different places. Such instances - cutting a line here, three lines there, etc. -- can be found throughout the production, but in order to locate them one must follow along with a written text. Rearranging parts of play adds to the continuity of storylines and makes the story itself easier to follow. Viewers familiar with Hamlet, however, will probably find these modifications more jarring. Most of the time this "streamlining" is logical. For instance, the meeting of Hamlet and Ophelia in the nunnery scene directly follows the planning of this meeting by the King, Queen, and Polonius, and Hamlet's "fishmonger" conversation with Polonius. In the play itself, this storyline is interrupted by the players' arrival, but in the Olivier production this event takes place after the unfolding of the nunnery scene. Once again these modifications take place throughout the play. The third, and most obvious modification that Olivier makes is the total removal of subplots, as well as other major events. These cuts have a great impact on the telling of the play. Cutting the Player's recitation of the fall of Troy causes Hamlet's soliloquy, "What a rogue and peasant slave am I..." to be cut. Olivier's decision to delete the character Fortinbras, has great consequences, because this necessitates cutting Hamlet's final soliloquy, "How all occasions do inform against me... ." The ending of the play is also altered by this choice. The deletion of two rather prominent characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has the greatest effect on the play because the deletion or transplantation of several scenes results. The cuts of a line here and there can be viewed as creating a snowball effect that leads to the rearranging of scene, and the rearranging leads to the cuts of whole storylines and events. Most of the material that is cut by the minor deletions is repetitive, and these choices have little immediate effect. However, Shakespeare had a purpose in these repetitions, and that was to ensure that the audience could follow the play. By removing this repetition, one also makes the play considerably more difficult to understand. Olivier employs a logical solution -- that is, increasing the continuity of the story. This requires the rearranging that is so prevalent in his production. However, if one rearranges all of the critical scenes of Hamlet so that they unfold chronologically, then one is left with a considerable amount of unnecessary scenes and even storylines themselves. Therefore, Olivier's decision to cut these excess storylines again seems logical. A viewer familiar at Hamlet may at first find these modifications very uncomfortable, but when one analyzes what caused Olivier to make the decisions he did, these rather sweeping changes become perfectly acceptable.
on August 10, 2000
Consider this: Shakespearean films more than other films are dependent upon the director's translation of the text. HAMLET in particular has been adapted roughly 43 times in film. I'll say up front that this version is not my favorite interpretation, but I won't deny that it certainly set the standard back in its day.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, has recently passed away and he resents the speed with which his mother, Queen Gertrude, remarried. It doesn't help that her new husband is the dead king's brother, Claudius. Soon an apparition who is the spirit of his father, the dead king, visits Hamlet. The ghost explains that Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, murdered him in his sleep and tells Hamlet to avenge his death. The remainder of the story primarily revolves around the Prince's struggle to stop thinking and start doing (exemplified by the famous "To be, or not to be" speech. Can Hamlet do what it takes to truly avenge his father's death?
Olivier and his much-celebrated interpretation of HAMLET are considered by many to be the best of all Shakespeare film adaptations -- it certainly bears the indelible stamp of its director/star's personality. Apparently, the Academy agreed rewarding it with Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress and Best Costume Design and among others. (Trivia: Olivier's direction was also nominated losing to John Huston for "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" in 1948).
Olivier's take on Shakespeare's story of madness and murder most foul is unmistakably cinematic -- he takes full advantage of the medium, avoiding the trap of merely filming a play as some Shakespeare adaptations do, with monologues delivered as internal thoughts heard in hushed voiceovers. He occasionally uses dizzying camerawork to show Hamlet's inner turmoil, a trick that could never have worked on stage. The setting, lighting, and cinematography are wondrous setting the somber and Gothic tone.
Some notable scenes for me include the sequence where the Ghost appears. Olivier uses sound and voice to create the disorientation that Hamlet and others feel when in the presence of the supernatural for a great creepy effect. Another arresting scene is when Laertes and Claudius are planning the murder of Hamlet. It starts with a close shot of the duo but slowly backs away, as if it wants to separate itself, and the audience, from the bloody deeds being discussed.
But there are many disappointing choices made. Substantial cuts were made to the text (forgivable if you realize he needed to cut a 4-hour play into at least 2 hours. The omission of the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (childhood friends of Hamlet who are ultimately killed because they were too loyal to Claudius, and not to the Prince) is unfortunate as they bring so much contrast and subtle texture to the play.
While I am a great fan of Olivier's, I strongly believe there were certain roles that were out of his range, Hamlet topping the list. (And I'm not even going to talk about the fact that 41 year old Olivier is playing a character who is in his mid to late twenties.) Olivier also insists on taking the Freudian approach with Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, an idea not really supported by the text suggesting that the real reason Hamlet is upset is not so much due to his father's murder, but that he should be with Gertrude, not Claudius. But the thing that nags at me most is that Hamlet is fundamentally a man of action, though a man of action who is aware that his actions have consequences. He is divided: determined to act, destructive when he does act, and consequently disconnected from his actions. But while Olivier lives well in the language and his rendering of the lines is a kind of dark poetry, his overall portrayal is mannered and brooding and almost petulant. It's a disappointing adaptation by an otherwise brilliant actor.
Now as a DVD, this release of HAMLET is by the superior Criterion Collection. Criterion DVD's are often considered to be state-of-the-art, and this one is no exception presenting a nicely restored film good quality and sound. A definite must for a film collector. Having said all that, I'll end my review this way: again, this is not my favorite version of HAMLET (go watch Branagh's, Zeffirelli's or even Mel Gibson's versions) but as a piece of cinematic history this is definitely a watchable film worth seeing for it's accomplishments and cinematography.
on November 22, 2004
Many critics have viewed the Lawrence Olivier version of Hamlet to be the best among the 43 film adaptations of Hamlet. The film won four Academy Awards, and Lawrence Olivier amazingly gained two Academy Awards for both directing and acting. The Jacobi Hamlet, on the other hand, was a BBC TV film put together in a short time with a small budget during the late 70s. (As a side note, Jacobi was actually introduced into Shakespearean acting by Olivier.) Despite this difference in prestige, the films presented two equally valid interpretations of Hamlet. The central issue was if Hamlet was mad, and through manipulations of voices and the degree and timing of Hamlet's violent actions, the audience was faced with two emotionally upset Hamlets, one who had more madness and the other who had more control.
Both Hamlets were emotional in their voices and had bursts of anger, but Olivier was more rational and controlled in his voice then Jacobi, who seemed truly mad. At first, Olivier's voice was calm and determined. There were deep thoughts behind everything that he was saying, and one could sense love in those tender sounds. His voice gradually became more menacing during the "honesty" speech, but it was still well paced and contrived. After the line "get thee to a nunnery ", the voice intensified, yet it was more suggestive than contemptuous. One could at the same time sense a growing tone of disappointment. After questioning the whereabouts of Ophelia's father, Olivier suddenly flooded out a stream loud, angry and disdainful words against Ophelia's virginity and women in general. It might be that Olivier noticed the presence of the King and Polonius, and increased his voice only to trick them. The emotions, however, were deep and real. The scene ended with Hamlet uttering "to a nunnery go" close to Ophelia in a soft and tender manner, and this brought Hamlet back to his previous rational state.
Jacobi's voice was drastically different than Olivier's. Instead of moving gradually from calmness to anger, Jacobi was dramatic throughout. In his utterance, there was from the very beginning a deep sense of yearning, despair and mockery combined with a viciousness that made a lion quiet. At the beginning, he mocked Ophelia's returning of his scarf in a drunken ignorance. Then his voice became a most dark and menacing whisper as he got closer to Ophelia. That same voice grew angrier and louder as he started looking for the King and Polonius. He wanted the King to hear what he was saying in an act of defiance. After questioning the whereabouts of Ophelia's father, this crazy man screamed far and close to her, and the voice reached a climax in speed and freakiness. At this climax, Jacobi's voice suddenly surprisingly melted into a stream of greater sorrow as he cried against Ophelia. Then as if depleted of his emotions, he walked away without much energy left in his voice. A person's mind is only as clear as his words. Jacobi's voice was the most sorrowful and sad, and their extremity made one wonder if he had lost control over himself. In comparison, though Olivier had his burst also, one saw much more elegance and control in him overall.
The two Hamlets were both violent in their actions, but Olivier acted violently with much less regularity and degree in comparison to Jacobi, whose actions were a combination of sexual harassment, pure hitting, and deep love. In Olivier, Hamlet first pushed Ophelia's book down in a pretty forceful manner. As their eyes met at that instant, Ophelia confusion about what to do seemed obvious. In this first encounter, one could sense that even if their love was a broken one, there were still remnants of passion that either could ignore. There was an overall ease. Olivier stood straight and walked fashionably, and despite tensions, there was politeness in the air. Ophelia tried to not look at Olivier, but Olivier walked from her side to side, encroaching closer and closer with a determined calmness combined with a growing menace. Then, after asking where her Dad was, and looking around alarmingly, Olivier suddenly started to strut wildly about the room. Without warnings, he jumped up the stairs, and pushed Ophelia down so hard that she fell unto the ground crying. This time, contrary to before, there was not a bit of love and care in Olivier's eyes. At the end, he kissed her scarf in a loving fashion. This left the audience wondering if he was faking the violence before. Olivier was certainly suffering. Ophelia might have ignited two opposite emotions for him. He loved Ophelia, but at the same time hated woman in general. This confusion contributed to his change in behaviors.
If Olivier's actions were mercurial, Jacobi's actions made one feel as if he had 5 minds fighting against each other at once. His face was not calm like Olivier's; it squinted and sneered most unpleasantly throughout. Near the beginning, he bonded that gift scarf to Ophelia's neck, and than tried to grab her groin. Ophelia looked horrified, and her sufferance was conspicuous through her bewildered and tearful eyes. His actions were so vehement that it would not seem strange for him to pull out a knife at any instance. After asking the whereabouts of Ophelia's father, he went into an even higher level of frenzy. This man rushed toward Ophelia, pushed her down, and accused her of the foulest things, but just as the audience expected more violence, he strangely hugged her tightly with the most ardent passion. With that hug, one could not doubt that he loved her, but then why was he so violent to her before? The only conclusion is that he was suffering under such a heavy burden of revenge, and was so disappointed at his incapability at taking any actions, that he really was becoming crazy.
These two movies interpreted the tones and actions of the Hamlet differently. The king and Polonius were looking for signs of Hamlet's craziness, and they would have collected totally different evidence from the two. The Olivier Hamlet was a struggling prince with a fairly confused mind, but he was mostly in control of himself. Even when he became wild, there was more melancholy than madness in his anger. On the other hand, the Jacobi Hamlet really freaked one out. This Hamlet was certainly in deep pain, but his often too visible sorrow and violence left the audience feeling more horrified than sympathetic. The original title of the Olivier's Oscar winning Hamlet was "An essay on Hamlet", because he directed the movie to show his personal estimations and interpretations of Hamlet. Jacobi himself summed the disparities between Hamlets in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor in 1980, he said,
Really, it is the personality of the actor playing the role which is the determining factor. You don't actually have to play the character, you play the situation in which Hamlet finds himself and your own personality, your own outlook takes over. That's why the part is played differently by so many different actors, all doing perfectly valid interpretations. Hamlet is a universal man, he is all of us.
One can prefer one Hamlet to the other, but no Hamlet is better than another. Shakespeare certainly had his own thoughts about who Hamlet really was, but he also left the question to us, so that we could see which Hamlet we truly are.
on May 11, 2002
There are several film versions of Shakespeare's great play about the troubled Prince of Denmark; Mel Gibson's imbues the drama with a barely restrained mania while Kenneth Branagh's is notable as the most nearly complete version yet made. Still, it is Olivier's production which remains the standard, and justifiably so. His is the performance which I believe most nearly matches the Bard's own vision of how the tormented Hamlet should be played--sensitive, caustic and impassioned yet tortured and lost. Olivier's direction leads the viewer inexorably into the heart of the play, whose characters move through the nearly inescapable walls of Castle Elsinore like sleepwalkers through a lucid dream. But Olivier couldn't do it all himself, and doesn't need to. Felix Aylmer is a likeable wise old fool as Polonius; Eileen Herlie is an appropriately confused queen and mother; Basil Sydney is well-cast as the villain who would rather not be; and Jean Simmons shines as Hamlet's innocent love, whose disintegration is so realistic it breaks the watcher's heart. More, the individual scenes are beautifully orchestrated. Oliver's rendition of the "To be or not to be" soliloquoy is pure magic, and the story's climactic duel is worth the wait, as Hamlet and Laertes (Ophelia's brother, well assayed by Terence Morgan)duel to the death--one unwittingly, and both to the death of more than each other. True, the production is incomplete, and the lack of Rosencranz and Guildenstern is a regrettable omission. But overall, Olivier's film captures the essence of Shakespeare's play like no other. As long as Hamlet is studied in schools, this will be the version most often used to show how the play should be done. A worthwhile addition to even the most discerning video library.
on May 1, 2005
"Hamlet belongs into the theater," says Mel Gibson, the star of the tragedy's 1990 adaptation by Franco Zeffirelli, in an interview on that movie's DVD. And while primarily expressing regret over his own lacking opportunity to explore the role's complexities by nightly slipping into the prince's skin on stage, he also has a point regarding any screen adaptation's validity: the many facets of Hamlet's character have, after all, been debated by literature's greatest minds since the Bard's very own time. For that reason, too, any newcomer is well-advised to first read the play - not see it on stage, nor watch any of the myriad movie versions - but keep an open mind and let the Bard's words speak for themselves. All these centuries later, Shakespeare alone still remains the one true authority on Hamlet's character; and while reading, too, necessarily creates an interpretation in the reader's mind that others may or may not agree with (as does any staging of the complete tragedy), the interpretative element is enhanced even more if this complex play is reduced to somewhat over half its length to comply with cinematic necessities. Nothing proves this better than Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 movie, which won him Best Director and Best Actor Academy Awards, in addition to the film's Best Costume Design and Best Set Decoration honors.
Without question, in his day Olivier was considered *the* quintessential Hamlet; the actor who owned the role like none before and few, if any, afterwards; not least because of this movie and his participation in the 1937 Helsingor (= Elsinore) staging. Olivier's approach follows the still-predominant understanding of Hamlet as a wavering man, "who cannot make up his mind," as he says in the movie's prologue, which borrows from the passage "so oft it chances in particular men that, for some vicious mole of nature in them ... they ... carrying ... the stamp of one defect, ... their virtues else, - be they as pure as grace ... shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault," from Hamlet's monologue preceding the encounter with his father's ghost (here: an uncredited Sir John Gielgud). Olivier's prince is weary, subdued: but for confrontations like those with Ophelia ("get thee to a nunnery"), with Gertrude after the play designed to "catch the conscience of the king," and with Laertes over Ophelia's grave, he speaks softly; and unlike other interpretations of the tragedy's single most famous soliloquy, even "to be or not to be" - although dramatically set on a parapet above the ocean's raging waves - already begins half-defeated and emphasizes the reluctant suicide over the reluctant avenger. Yet, while this works well within this film's context, perhaps just *because* the medium also invites interpretation by cutting and rearranging scenes, it seems somewhat ill-matched with Hamlet's later violent curse of his own inaction and renewed vow of revenge ("O, vengeance! This is most brave ..."); a passage essentially omitted here. A torn man he is certainly, but I think with room for a broader range and more forcefully expressed emotions than Olivier allows himself - I'd have liked to see how his approach worked in the full play's theatrical productions. (It also feeds into the Freudian concept of Hamlet's and Gertrude's relationship, and the idea of more than friendship between him and Horatio: equally aspects I don't find firmly anchored in the play.) But there we are: interpretation is the key to it all!
Equally without question, from today's perspective Olivier's Hamlet stands out vis-a-vis the remaining cast's performances even more compellingly than it must have to its original audience; and many today might disagree with a September 30, 1948 N.Y. Times review praising the "beautiful acting and inspired interpretations all the way." Sir Laurence's costars were near-uniformly well-established actors of their time: Basil Sydney (Claudius) a theatrical leading man and matinee idol since before 1920, also with a prolific - though less illustrious - film career, Eileen Herlie (Gertrude) celebrated, inter alia, for stage appearances in "Rebecca" and "Medea," Felix Aylmer (Polonius) a noted Shaw interpreter with (even then) 30 years' stage and almost two-thirds that in screen experience, and Norman Wooland (Horatio) a Stratford-on-Avon regular since the 1930s. Yet, even method acting aside, none of them inhabit their roles in the more complete, natural(istic) way modern audiences have come to expect; rather, the era's stilted stage performances are in evidence, and although then-19-year-old Jean Simmons garnered an Oscar nomination for her Ophelia, her achievement is neither her own career's greatest nor the best-informed portrayal of the maid. (Why Terence Morgan - Laertes - received fan mail for this, his first movie, also escapes me.) I sometimes wonder what might've been gained by cutting speeches down to more succinct dialogue; although behind the scenes this might well have created a feeling that "[e]verybody had a part either too long or too short" (Austen, "Mansfield Park"), thus ultimately doing more harm than good, even if it had made room for Hamlet's ambiguous school-fellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who add depth and texture to the play and to those screen versions preserving them. (The same is true for Fortinbras, but there dramatic dynamics do provide better grounds for the character's elimination in a screen adaptation.)
Both costume design and set decoration, however, were worthy Oscar winners; and while one may debate some cinematographic choices (e.g. the famous pull-back from Claudius's and Laertes's conspiracy), generally the camerawork enhances the movie's richly-layered, darkly-atmospheric setting. Thus, it all comes down to that central question: to cut or not to cut - and if so, what? The first part may not have offered any alternative; it took, after all, until 1996 for Kenneth Branagh to show that Hamlet can be done completely *and* successfully as a movie. As for the second part ... de gustibus non est disputandum. So, yes, a milestone in Olivier's career and Shakesperean history certainly; however "no more but so" (Ophelia), and these days, no longer the one definitive Hamlet, either.
The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works 2nd Edition
Hamlet (The New Folger Library Shakespeare)
BBC Shakespeare Tragedies DVD Giftbox
Olivier's Shakespeare - Criterion Collection (Hamlet / Henry V / Richard III)
William Shakespeare's Hamlet (Two-Disc Special Edition)
Grigori Kozintsev's Hamlet
Peter Brook's King Lear
There have been many film Hamlets and Sir Laurence, even after he won the Academy Award for his performance here, felt that he was far from ideal. But every Hamlet makes for a different show. Olivier is a frantic Hamlet, energetic even in his melancholy, and he gives a great show. With gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that brings to life the castle Elsinore and great supporting performances, this is one classic that is never dull.
Criterion as usual does a fantastic job. The picture and sound quality of this disc are top notch. My only complaint is that the disc contains no extras. Even the Henry V Criterion had a nice commentary track by a film historian. Because the cinematography is so luminous, however, I'm willing to overlook it. Some probably prefer Branagh's Hamlet, but until it comes out on DVD, one has no excuse not to own Olivier's.
on August 6, 2012
This 1948 screen adaptation of Hamlet represents an abbreviated play albeit not to the point of incoherency as was the Zeffirelli version (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been removed entirely along with the Fortinbras sub-plot). Additionally, Olivier presents a "down-gyved stockings" free version by inserting the occasional modern translation as well as a brief foreword from Act I followed by the most famous saying associated with his particular interpretation; "this is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind".
The sets as well as the scoring are spartan to the point I suspect the budget wasn't terribly huge, unlike Brannagh's lavish and superbly scored Doctor Zhivagoesque version (which I love BTW), however I was drawn to the foggy and gothic, film-noir atmosphere as well as the addition of a sea-battle montage (shown while Horatio reads Hamlet's letter from exile). This is probably my favorite "to be or not to be speech" if for no other reason than the non-verbal aspect of Olivier's acting and I think he was certainly one of the most dexterous Hamlets; my gosh I love it when he disarms Laertes as well as his pirouette when he shouts "the play is the thing...", and finally when he pounces on Claudius at the end to exact vengeance with the poisoned blade.
Although a good film overall, I believe its biggest weakness is the relative lack of any other remarkable performances outside of Olivier with the exception of Ophelia and two very minor roles: that of the equivocating gravedigger (one of the best I've seen) and the foppish Osric played by a prancing and perfumed Peter Cushing. Now the following observation may sound a little shallow, but I must remark that Jean Simmons should've stayed blonde because she was, in my opinion, the hottest Ophelia of all time and I love her creepy and dreamy (creamy?) post-madness performance the best as well. The absolute worst performance was undoubtedly Claudius which is an even greater tragedy considering he has such a large role (lol, he sounds both stoned and constipated in his opening speech of Act I scene 2), followed by the lackluster Laertes whose pre and post death-of-father performances can only be distinguished by a slight furrowing of his eyebrows, a Polonius whose continued presence seems more likely to cause insanity than the absence thereof and a halfhearted Horatio who might as easily have been played by a stage broom with as much effect. Gertrude acquits herself quite aptly of any blame in this version being utterly clueless... about everything, not to mention that the actress portraying her was actually 12 years younger than Olivier which makes her maternal smooching more than a little gross.
Olivier's performance is subdued almost to the point of indifference coupled with the occasional outburst of anger or hysteria to emphasize the conflicted nature of the character. Also please don't expect the emphasis on realism which characterizes most modern films because this was after all created for an audience of the 1940's and if you're familiar with material from that era then the style shouldn't be off-putting. Four stars for reasons I've already mentioned but overall highly recommended if for no other reason than another perspective on the greatest of Shakespearean plays by one of the most inspired actors of the 20th century and a scholar of the bard in his own right. :o)
I'm no more competent to discuss Hamlet as literature than I am to ride a horse. So let's talk about it as a story and as a movie. On both counts, this version -- shaped and edited, directed by and starring Lawrence Olivier -- is powerful and engrossing. You have to sit back and allow yourself to get into the rhythm of blank verse. You have to accept the nature of classic British acting's Shakespearean diction...precise and a little declarative. If you can manage this, you'll be rewarded with a fine cinematic experience.
The story is so well known that it doesn't need much repeating. A son's father dies. He suspects murder by the man who subsequently married his mother. The ghost of his father seems to confirm this. He is determined to pursue vengeance. He eventually succeeds but at a cost of many lives lost due largely to his own demons. "...the ghost and the prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat," is how lyric writer Howard Dietz put it. The story is a gripper. Shakespeare's words aren't bad, either.
What do I like about the movie? First, Olivier's ruthless approach. He believed people should remember that Shakespeare wrote for the stinking, scratching, fornicating masses (and, of course, to curry favor with the Tudors). The groundlings might appreciate a good weeper tragedy, but if they didn't come to fill the standing area and pay the entrance fee, William Shakespeare wouldn't have much of a career as a playwright. Olivier edits, cuts and rearranges the text because he's taking a centuries-old stage play and turning it into a strongly-paced, dramatic...movie. There's no time or room for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" gets the heave-ho, among other soliloquies. The result is a movie which is tightly focused on the story and on Hamlet's conflicted character.
Second, Olivier's version of Hamlet the man. This prince of Denmark may be introspective, suspicious and more than a little self-centered, but when the times call for it, Hamlet is a man of action. The closing sword fight is a lengthy and brutal fight to the death. You'll want to take a step back and watch again when Olivier leaps from a parapet straight onto Claudius, crashes with him onto the stone floor, then takes his sword and thrusts deep into Claudius' chest over and over again. This is Olivier's Hamlet, not Shakespeare's stage directions. The groundlings would have loved it.
Third, the other actors, especially Basil Sydney as Claudius and Jean Simmons as Ophelia. Simmons was 18 when she made the movie. She'd already had major parts in films such as Great Expectations and Black Narcissus, but this was the first major Shakespearean role she'd ever played. Her Ophelia is so innocent and vulnerable it almost skewers the film; as it is, however, it underlines that Hamlet is not simply a man torn by grief and revenge. There is something more twisted going on within him. Sydney does a wonderful job as the King, Hamlet's stepfather and the lustful husband to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. When Gertrude gives Hamlet a goodnight kiss, it is easy to assume that something erotic, something other than motherly love, is at play in the relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet. Sydney's Claudius is so pleased with being king, so eager to bed Gertrude at any opportunity that it's possible to almost like the man. He may be suspicious of Gertrude's love of her son, but he just doesn't want to know too much. Sydney makes Claudius' faults of ambition and lust easy to understand.
Fourth, the look of the film. Olivier has created a black-and-white vision of austere camera angles, with heavy stone stairways and battlements, fog and shadows, great dining halls that are damp and chilly. His Hamlet is also startling...blond, heavy lidded, too able to smile coldly. Yet when Hamlet's death finally comes, after revenge, betrayal and having followed his destiny, it causes an uneasy and deep feeling of retribution for his flaws. It was a sad, almost pointless loss. Olivier stages a flamboyant death for his Hamlet, but one which underlines all this. Countless high school students have giggled over "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." They might not this time.
Hamlet can be played in so many ways; Olivier's version might not be your version. For me, this movie is so good because it works as a dramatic movie. It's exciting, tragic and cinematic. And for all those who may remain giggling high school students at heart, tell them to watch the movie and see if they can spot in bit parts Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The Criterion version looks and sounds very good. There are no extras.
Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 version of Hamlet sets the standard for film version of the play about the Danish prince. Much as he did with Henry V, Sir Laurence exercises some significant plot points and characters from Shakespeare's play, but it is done to concentrate the focus of the film on the brooding prince. Make no mistake about it, this is Sir Laurence's film all the way. He brings an amazing breadth to character who disintegrates from a happy and sensitive man into a tormented and lost soul. There are some other great performances including Eileen Herlie who plays the Queen and is Sir Laurence's mother in the film despite being thirteen years his junior, a young Jean Simmons is luminous as Ophelia and Basil Sydney is effective as the villainous Claudius. Horror film notables Peter Cushing and the now ubiquitous Christopher Lee also appear as does Stanley Holloway. The film was a major success and it helped earn Sir Laurence his only competitive Oscars in 1948 as Best Actor and as producer on the Best Picture award in addition to two others for Best Art Direction (B&W) and Best Costume Design (B&W). He is also the only Best Actor Oscar winner to direct himself to the award.
on January 29, 2015
Beautifully done! Even I could grasp the Shakespearean language. Many things that are said today without a thought come from this play, my favorite being "There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Being a seriously indecisive person myself, I could well relate to the main character. A classic play done in a classic manner. A true winner!