JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Hamlet (Director: Laurence Olivier) - September 24, 2016


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155 min.

Through the lens of a master

It’s difficult to imagine a more satisfying cinematic treatment of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy ever coming to the big screen. The 1948 Best Picture is a stellar testament to Laurence Olivier’s magnificent acting skills but also his uncanny understanding of the Bard’s second-to-none depiction of ambition laid bare.

In many ways, the Best Supporting Actor award ought to go to the camera, split between “photographer” Desmond Dickinson and Olivier, the former bringing the latter’s penchant for near-unstoppable flow to glorious black-and-white life. The frequent long, wide-ranging pans throughout Elsinore make the scene changes far more seamless than even some stage presentations can produce. The royal entries are especially well-crafted from the beautifully varied points of view (most especially prior to the play-within-the play) and the much less frequent outdoor scenes (notably Ophelia’s watery demise) add natural balance to the castle’s cavernous chambers and staircases.

William Walton’s score is also at one with the artistic vision of playwright and filmmaker, further pushing the nefarious plots and love story towards their well-known conclusion that, nonetheless, evokes a freshness that will engage first-time viewers and veterans alike.

Olivier’s meticulously coiffed Norwegian-blonde locks seem just a touch too gay to make believers of all, but the same colour marvellously links Hamlet with his sometime love (Jean Simmons looks and sings beautifully as Ophelia, yet she doth weep too much, methinks) and one of the travelling players who eagerly sports his female wig to alluring effect.

The rest of acting is also first rate: Eileen Herlie plays Gertrude with a touch of incestuousness (more than motherly kisses with her soon-to-be mad son and convincing moment of despair when realizing just how low she has sunk); husband Claudius is given a darkly sinister performance from Basil Sydney—his prayer for redemption is an ironic gem; Esmond Knight is the epitome of Hamlet’s stoic friend, Bernardo while the boyish good looks of Terence Morgan work ideally as the naïve Laertes learns firsthand how plans for revenge can so easily run amuck; for comic relief, the graveside dialogue between Hamlet and Stanley Holloway as the pun-loving gravedigger is almost worth the price of admission alone.

As Hamlet, Olivier literally lets viewers see into his increasingly troubled mind, employing a superbly plotted mix of voice-over and direct speech in his soliloquies. This technique can be done in the theatre but would be nowhere near as telling and effective than in the cinema.

Now with the worldwide celebrations of Shakespeare’s 400th year taking place everywhere, a viewing of Olivier’s film performances would be an ideal way to revel once again at the genius from Stratford-upon-Avon. JWR

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