Release Date: September 29th, 1948 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Laurence Olivier Actors: Laurence Olivier, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Jean Simmons, Terence Morgan, Peter Cushing, Anthony Quayle
aurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” is one of the most authentic, genuine, and enthusiastically visualized adaptations of Shakespeare’s much adored play, and certainly the most accomplished of Olivier’s ventures with the poet – earning the 1948 Academy Award for Best Picture. It would also be the first time a director directed himself to a Best Actor Oscar win. The black-and-white cinematography wondrously enhances the mood, giving the tragedy the perfect atmosphere of a ghost story, while a cast of renowned British actors with the energy and seriousness necessary to appropriately convey the calamitous plot brilliantly delivers the dialogue.
“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Guards on the tower of the castle of Elsinore witness an apparition of the dead King Hamlet, and wish for young Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) to see the specter for himself, in the hopes that it will successfully communicate. The prince has not taken the throne in his father’s place, as his uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney) married the queen, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie), within a mere month. When Hamlet does confront the ghost, it reveals to him a “murder most foul,” at the hands of Claudius. Rage surges through the young Dane, supplying him with the conviction necessary to scheme an elaborate avengement – firstly, with a clever test of the new king’s guilt. Eventually, Claudius’ paranoia persuades him to dispose of Hamlet, which leads to a powerful, tragic conclusion.
The characters are each vividly portrayed, thanks to the resoundingly artistic scripting. While some may find it difficult to interpret the poetic speeches and inconspicuous syncopation (even less apparent when recited as standard conversation in film), the careful verbiage paints a distinct picture. Perhaps most notable is Polonius (Felix Aylmer), the father of Hamlet’s love interest Ophelia (Jean Simmons) and a comedy relief of sorts, accustomed to giving paternal advice, struggling to be the voice of reason, and serving as advisor/interpreter for the maddening conspiracies afoot. Yet his words are full of idiotic contrasts, spouting the importance of brevity with a lengthy, tongue-twisting, adjective-stuffed recitation, or his introduction of the theater troupe with ridiculously repetitious descriptions. Later, Hamlet’s most famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy defines his own depressed and conflicted state of mind. Without such creative exchanges, it would certainly be more difficult to visualize, even though the play was always intended to be watched as opposed to read.
Figurative language and imagery is in delightful abundance, symbolic of the many dark themes, as well as in full force for cultured embellishment. “Grizzled,” “solemn,” “sorrow,” “frowningly,” “doomed,” “unnatural,” “incestuous,” “seeming virtuous,” “sleeping” (as in death), “madness,” “knaves,” “sea of troubles,” and countless other words and phrases astutely adorn the conversations and internal monologues that deal with the tone of despair and anguish. The most complex and discernible example works with near wordlessness as the Murder of Gonzago play mimics the exact nature of King Hamlet’s untimely demise.
This ties into the themes of “Hamlet,” most of which are steeped in morbidity and darkness. Examined less frequently is the idea of the lead character’s downfall arising from indecision as opposed to rashness and antagonism. “I must be cruel only to be kind,” Hamlet gravely states to his distraught mother, who he repeatedly attacks with the questioning of her virtue, greatly disapproving of her support of Claudius. His most opportune time to strike, however, is thwarted by the notion that slaying a praying man would send the victim to heaven instead of hell. Another theme typically less emphasized is the oedipal suggestions, despite equal parts resentment routinely presented. “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Hamlet cries, detesting his mother’s inconstancy, which is certainly improper for his ideal woman. Her actions poison his own ability to interact with his lover; he famously affronts Ophelia with the line “Get thee to a nunnery!” which starts her own downward spiral toward insanity.
Olivier’s exclusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with the opening narration with a few invented lines, garnered some critical distress. But “Hamlet” is still the only film to have won both the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion award as well as the Best Picture Oscar. It was the first British (foreign) film to take the Academy’s top honor, and a striking achievement for an actor/director who would continue to helm and star in Shakespeare’s works (“Richard III” in 1955, “Othello” in 1965, and “King Lear” in 1983) with gusto, respect, and an eye for cinematic adaptation.
– Mike Massie