“Hamlet” (1948) directed by/starring Laurence Olivier

[1] Heartbreaking, well acted, great script and direction, well paced,… it’s the clearest telling of Hamlet I’ve seen, old or contemporary.

[2] …Olivier is superb, his finest filmed acting performance. His Hamlet is measured and nuanced and brilliantly crafted…

-Excerpts from Amazon reviews

[1] Olivier portrays him primarily as “a man who could not make up his mind,” and his fine and often subtle acting brings to his role a deep understanding of his character’s inner struggles and dilemmas, both moral and practical.

[2] He shies away from the humor completely, and instead takes a slow, purposeful tack. To that, it might not appeal to some.

[3] The camera moves and sweeps everywhere… It creates extraordinary images and energy that make many scenes unforgettable- without calling too much attention to itself.

…the climactic fencing scenes are genuinely great- easily the best fencing scenes in a version of Hamlet and possibly among the best in film history.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

This is the first English movie adaptation (w/ sound) of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; it cost $2 million to produce (a large sum at that time). This is also the first British (non-American) film to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Laurence Olivier became the first person ever to direct himself and win the Best Actor Oscar. It was shot in black and white b/c (as Olivier later admitted) he was in a fight w/ Technicolor! Desmond Dickinson (the cinematographer) had a special maneuverable camera dolly made w/ tires (the first of its kind in England). To appeal to a wider public, Olivier and Alan Dent (text adaptor) modernized and/or clarified some phrases. This version omits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” scene is missing. Fortinbras, Prince of Norway, also doesn’t appear; some of his lines were given to Horatio.

Olivier (who wears a blonde wig and tights) can pull off many looks; he created his characters from the outside-in. He speaks his lines in a natural way, as if he had just thought of them. Even if you’re not a huge fan of Shakespeare, you’ll understand and be able to follow Olivier. The famous “To be or not to be” speech is done in an unique way atop a tower; at first, we hear Hamlet’s thoughts, then he speaks out loud. The scene where Hamlet peruses Ophelia’s face is done well (and somewhat unexpected). The adventure w/ the pirates is briefly shown; we don’t see that in the theater. Near the end, Hamlet leaps off the high stairway and stabs Claudius- another unexpected (and potentially dangerous) directorial choice! Olivier was uninjured, but the stuntman for Claudius was knocked out from the impact and lost two of his teeth.

Some critics/viewers didn’t agree w/ the emphasis on the Oedipal complex (a concept arising from theories of Freud) in this adaptation. Hamlet is more affectionate w/ Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) than I’ve seen in other movies and plays. Herlie (who hailed from Scotland) was quite younger than Olivier; she looked familiar (she played a matriarch on the American soap opera All My Children). She also played Gertrude in the 1964 movie starring Richard Burton. Gertrude and Claudius (Basil Sydney) made a believable couple, though you can also sense some tension. I think Gertrude knows the cup of wine is poisoned in the pivotal fight scene!

Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in Star Wars; Saruman in LOTR) is one of the palace guards; he holds a spear. Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) is Osric, a foppish courtier. Lee and Cushing worked on 22 films together- wow! Anthony Quayle (The Guns of Navarone; Lawrence of Arabia) plays Marcellus, one of the friends who sees King Hamlet’s Ghost (John Gielgud). Stanley Holloway (Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady) is the darkly funny gravedigger. Terence Morgan (in this first movie) is Laertes; he is boyishly handsome and shines in the sword fighting scene. Norman Wooland (who worked w/ Olivier in Richard III) is Horatio; he has very thick/dark hair and a strong physical presence. Jean Simmons (w/ blonde hair) is Ophelia; she is youthful and vulnerable. She does a good job, but I wanted to see deeper characterization. Vivien Leigh wanted to play Ophelia, but Olivier (then her husband) said she was too famous. The scene of Ophelia floating down a river w/ flowers all over her dress and around her body is reminiscent of the painting by Sir John Everett Millais.

2 thoughts on ““Hamlet” (1948) directed by/starring Laurence Olivier

  1. I agree that this one of the few Hamlets I’ve seen where I didn’t find myself somewhat distracted by the language. And you forget that Oliver is too old for the role.

    Like

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