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Hamlet [1948 film] by Laurence Olivier

Hamlet [1948 film] (1948)

by Laurence Olivier (Director), Laurence Olivier (Hamlet)

Other authors: Felix Aylmer, Peter Cushing, Eileen Herlie, Anthony Quayle (Actor), William Shakespeare (Original play)2 more, Jean Simmons (Actor), William Walton (Composer)

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Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier – Hamlet

Basil Sydney – Claudius
Eileen Herlie – Gertrude
Jean Simmons – Ophelia
Felix Aylmer – Polonius
Terrence Morgan – Laertes

Music by William Walton.
Directed by Laurence Olivier.

ITV Studios Home Entertainment, 2011. 147 min. B&W. Dolby Digital 2.0. 4:3 (1.33:1).


Olivier's Hamlet is visually spectacular for its time. The camera work is rather shaky, sometimes annoyingly so, but the dark, brooding, menacing atmosphere is superbly conveyed. It is a film noir in every sense of the word. The text is very heavily cut, but unlike some critics (which include the much loved by me Ethel Barrymore), I don't in the least regret the complete omission of Guildenstern, Rosencrantz, Reynaldo and Fortinbras, nor the much abridged parts of Osrik and the first gravedigger, amusing as they are. It's a very clever adaptation. Olivier clearly intended to bring forward Hamlet's internal conflicts at the expense of politics and other side issues, and for my part he was quite right. The only cuts I seriously regret are, of course, Hamlet's soliloquies; especially the third one is nearly completely missing. These should have been retained at all costs.

What I like most about Olivier's portrayal is his restraint. Sad to say, but it seems that with the passing years Hamlet, at least on the screen, seems to wear his heart more and more on the sleeve. Not so Olivier. Which makes the several lines he cries out all the more effective; for example, the frantic (triumphant?) ''Is it the King?'' in the Closet Scene. Most of the lines, however, are spoken with singular detachment, rather deliberately and with many subtle nuances that can be appreciated only after several viewings. This melancholy, this subtle ''madness'', seems to me much more suitable to the character than the unabashed histrionics often adopted in modern times. Such approach as Olivier's makes you pay attention to the words, whereas more robust performances actually make you neglect them.

Should I be forced – Heaven forbid! – to choose but one Hamlet for my desert island exile, I will certainly go with Olivier's. By no means do I agree with everything in his interpretation; it is not perfect but only the least imperfect one – and only as far as I am concerned. To take but one example, I think Hamlet's blatant pro-Oedipal kisses are a dramatic mistake. By providing too easy and too obvious an explanation, they dilute the dramatic tension between mother and son, and all but ruin one of the most terrific scenes in the play. But such ''mistakes'' are rare.

I would not go as far as to claim, as some film critics have, that Olivier's greatest contribution on the screen was as a director. Far from it. But he is nonetheless fine a director for that. Leaving aside the haunting and already mentioned atmosphere, which easily rivals Orson Welles' in Macbeth (1948), Olivier passes with flying colours few other tricky obstacles. Soliloquies shown as thoughts are usually dull, but here, largely thanks to the direction, they are actually very effective, most notably the one behind the King's back and the beginning of ''To be, or not to be''. The latter is also one of the most unforgettable moments visually, with Olivier sitting on a rock high above the sea, as if amidst nothingness. The close-up in the beginning, which is abruptly interrupted by ''perchance to dream'', is especially memorable, showing Hamlet's face brightly lit while his eyes tend to be hidden in shadows. It's a startling image, not easy to forget. The movie's full with such glorious moments.

The rest of the cast is completely unknown to me. The only exception is Jean Simmons whom I have seen in a very different role before: Evie Bishop in Sanatorium (1950) based on Somerset Maugham's eponymous short story. She makes a cute Ophelia that excites much more sympathy that her paper equivalent. This is one of the greatest dangers – and greatest advantages – of seeing plays: the acting and the physical appearance of the characters may lead one to conclusions difficult to support by reading of the text only. Basil Sydney and Eileen Herlie, as Claudius and Gertrude respectively, are somewhat artificial and not terribly convincing. Felix Aylmer is a charmingly pompous Polonius.

Olivier's Hamlet is neither definitive nor perfect. No single movie or theatre production is. Only mediocre art receives definitive and perfect interpretations; Hamlet is far too great for that. The important thing is to see as many and as different interpretations, not just of the title part but of all others, as possible. You may – and indeed you should considering its historical importance – start with Olivier's masterpiece. But it should never remain the only one you have seen. It's just the beginning of a very long – possibly endless – quest. ( )
  Waldstein | Sep 26, 2015 |
Skillful production and wisely done in black and white, but cutting Shakespeare by half leaves too many casualties. ( )
  paulsikora | Dec 1, 2006 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Olivier, LaurenceDirectorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Olivier, LaurenceHamletmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Aylmer, Felixsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Cushing, Petersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Herlie, Eileensecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Quayle, AnthonyActorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Shakespeare, WilliamOriginal playsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Simmons, JeanActorsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
Walton, WilliamComposersecondary authorall editionsconfirmed

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The classic version of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the towering tragedy of the Danish prince who feigns madness to trap his father's murderer.

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