Sunday, April 10, 2011

HAMLET (1948)


The Academy's choice for best picture of 1948 could not possibly be classier: it is, quite simply, the movie version of the most famous play ever, adapted, directed and starring the most famous Shakespearean actor of the 20th. century (and maybe of all time).  The Academy was so impressed with Laurence Olivier's work that he also won for best actor, (the first director to direct himself to a best actor award ever, it was also the first foreign made film to win best picture) although he lost the best director award to John Huston for THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE.

The English born Olivier began his career in 1926 at age 19 when he joined the Birmingham Repetory Company, where he swiftly moved into lead roles in Hamlet and Macbeth.  He debuted in movies in 1930, in a short film called TOO MANY CROOKS (which is believed to be lost ).  He would go on to play many other roles on the screen; his first Shakespearean role was as Orlando in director Paul Czinner's 1936 production of AS YOU LIKE IT.  Initially, he was unimpressed by the cinema, thinking it a lower form of art when compared to live theater.  That view changed for him when he starred as Heathcliff in William Wyler's 1939 filming of Emily Bronte's novel WUTHERING HEIGHTS.  The acclaim and success that he won for that role (along with the fact that he learned how to tone down his theatrical acting style for the screen) changed his mind about film.  In 1944 he directed himself in the title role of Shakespeare's HENRY V, which he turned into a rousing war time propaganda story, and it was somewhat inevitable that he would eventually tackle the immortal bard's most famous work(versions of Hamlet had been filmed before as far back as the silent era, but a definitive version still had yet to be made).  And so it was that he got the British film company, Two Cities Films, to put up the two million dollar budget, (a still impressive amount for the time), under the proviso that he himself would play the title role.  They also stipulated that the film not run over two and half hours, which lead to Olivier making some cuts to the original text.  The film would become an enormous international hit, although some Shakespeare purists would quibble over some of those deletions.

Laurence Olivier

HAMLET tells the story of Danish prince Hamlet, who discovers, through a ghostly appearance by his late father, that his uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney), murdered his father to take over the throne and marry Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie).  This shocking news seems to drive him insane, as he indecisively debates to himself whether or not to avenge his father.  Inevitably, his delay leads to tragedy.
As an actor, Olivier's portrayal of Hamlet is controlled; emotional without being over the top, he rarely raises his voice or makes broad gestures(unlike some Hamlets I've seen on stage or in films), instead he finds the poetry humor and beauty in the dialogue and delivers it beautifully.  And there is  a surprisingly raw sexuality in his scenes with Ophelia (Jean Simmons), and in the stark incestual overtones he has with Gertrude.  He is also excellent in the physical scenes, like in his duel with Laertes (Terence Morgan), or in his final leap down a flight of stairs at Claudius.  If I have a problem with him in the film, it's that at 41 I think he was too old for the role; amazingly, Herlie played his mother even though she was only 28!  Along with Olivier, the entire cast of the film is excellent, especially Simmons's marvelous performance as the tragic Ophelia.
As a director, Olivier seemed determined to remind the audience that this was a movie and not a play; his camera swoops and prowls all around the dark, shadowy castle sets, (it moves, perhaps, a little too much)and he often uses voice overs to deliver Hamlet's soliloquies.  The famous "to be or not to be" speech is delivered partly in voice over and partly spoken, an excellent way to show Hamlet's inner debate with himself.  Although the sets often have a sparse, artificial look about them, Olivier still displays many striking visuals:  the appearance of the ghostly king is filmed like a horror movie, as it should be, while the watery death of Ophelia is beautifully and touchingly rendered. 

Jean Simmons as Ophelia

The film opens with Olivier announcing that "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind."  Many critics have felt that this reduces the complexities of the play to a simple line, and while there is some truth in that, Olivier was clearly thinking of main stream audiences and their understanding of the play when he decided to include this line, and if it helped people get the play, then what's the harm in it?  Another more stinging criticism of the movie is the aforementioned cutting that Olivier had to do, which meant that the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely eliminated (although Olivier gave some of Guilderstern's lines to Felix Alymer's Polonius).  Personally, I really miss the "What a piece of work is a man!" speech that Hamlet delivers to those two characters in the play, and I wish that Olivier had found some way to include it, and to instead cut out some of Ophelia's crazy scenes, which come across as a bit repetitive.  Still, if cuts had to be made, it would seem that for the most part, Olivier made the right choices, keeping the real meat of the story, along with the most legendary phrases.   And, at one hundred and fifty minutes, the film never drags.


Overall, it is difficult to find  fault with the Academy's choice, and as a record of a legendary actor giving his most famous performance, HAMLET holds up.  But, Olivier felt (and I agree) that his best cinematic Shakespearean work would come in 1955 when he played the title role in RICHARD III.  And as for the play Hamlet, in 1996 Kenneth Branagh made a version that I feel is superior to Olivier's; not only does the later version contain every word of the play, but it opens the story up more cinematicly than Olivier's, making it, in my opinion, the best version of the play ever filmed that I've seen.  Finally, I have already mentioned that John Huston won the best director award of 1948 for THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE, and I personally feel that that film holds up better than Olivier's, and that it should have won best picture.  Still, it's always hard to argue against Shakespeare.