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Back to the Feature: Hamlet (1948)


          I’m feeling in the mood for something Shakespeare. This’ll do. 
          Often considered the definitive cinematic Shakespearean adaptation, 1948’s Hamlet, directed by and starring Sir Laurence Olivier was a huge deal even when it came out. It’s the only Shakespeare movie that ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Olivier himself won a statue for his performance. Since then though there have been a bunch of other filmed versions of the classic tragedy, some good like Kenneth Branaghs’, some bad like Mel Gibsons’.
          This version is definitely closer to the great end of the spectrum. Though I don’t know if I like it as much as the Branagh film, it’s about as good as the RSC’s 2009 version with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. This is one of the seemingly few versions of Hamlet actually set in the period it was written for. But this film used that setting as an advantage, creating pretty believable medieval sets and the ever cloudy skies gave the atmosphere a needed dread. I can see why a lot of film versions since changed the time frame so as to not only differentiate themselves, but also because this one just did it so well.
          This film adapts the play pretty closely but not to the extent of again, the Branagh version. Quite a bit of dialogue is eliminated and whole scenes are missing. But I don’t mind, seeing as the cut stuff was never all that important to the play’s plot to begin with. I was surprised however given Olivier’s dedication to the Bard, that he actually switched some scenes around. It’s impressive; he knew changes needed to be made for the transition to film and accepted that. Most notably is the iconic soliloquy which is placed after Hamlet shuns Ophelia rather than before. But it works pretty well and allows Olivier to deliver the speech in a different locale. Rather than in the royal hall, he’s up on the battlements of the castle itself. And the speech is made all the more immediate and poignant by him actually being moments from potential suicide as he contemplates throwing himself off the wall. It actually makes the speech a lot more effective and his dilemma more understandable. Oliver also made the choice to internalize a number of Hamlet’s early speeches, and then later have him speak them aloud. I like how that acts as a subtle hint to his deteriorating sanity. It’s a challenge for the actor too, because while these long monologues are being delivered in voice-over, the actor has to convey all his complicated emotions through his demeanour and physicality alone. Olivier though succeeds in spades.
          It kind of goes without saying, but Olivier is a fantastic Hamlet. He has the gravitas to carry the dramatic weight as well as the sheer skill to portray the character relatably. Never once does his dialogue sound hammy and you can see his passion for the role in every scene. The delivery of his iconic speech may be the best that speech has ever been done on film and others like the Yorrick speech and stalking of Claudius are amazing as well. And I love how his interruption at the end of The Murder of Gonzago really comes off as publicly awkward as it should. Olivier has good chemistry with his co-stars too, particularly Norman Wooland’s Horatio. Basil Sydney was pretty good as Claudius though he’s no Patrick Stewart or Derek Jacobi or even Jeremy Irons. The wonderful Jean Simmons was a stand-out as Ophelia. Her voice is just so perfectly suited for elegant, poetic dialogue like Shakespeare and Dickens. Eileen Herlie does fine as Queen Gertrude but is way too young to be playing Hamlet’s mother being quite clearly younger than Olivier. The guy playing Polonius, Felix Aylmer spouts Shakespeare as if it’s second nature to him, Terence Morgan’s Laertes is alright, and Anthony Quayle (Colonel Brighton from Lawrence of Arabia) plays Marcellus adequately. But that’s not all; it’s pretty cool to see a young Peter Cushing as Osric, Dad’s Army’s John Laurie as Francisco, and Patrick Troughton of Doctor Who as the Player King. Oh and the great Christopher Lee was an extra in this film, try and spot him!
          This is a very well shot movie. Again, the production design really services the atmosphere but it’s also a very nice looking film; the cinematography’s great making it feel unmistakably Shakespearean. The way this film uses its shadows allows the castle to remain bleak, and this is another one of those films that I think wouldn’t have the same effect in colour as in black and white. The story after all is very grey. In terms of cons, there are a few aspects of this film that haven’t aged well. Though not bad, the sword fights could have been better, I didn’t quite feel the suspense I should have. That being said, the ghost of Hamlet’s father came off pretty good for the time and isn’t quite as overblown as Brian Blessed in Branagh’s film (both versions include a flashback to give further relevance to his death). Though Olivier is a powerhouse in the latter part, he didn’t seem as far-gone mentally or emotionally as Hamlet was in the play. I got that more from the scene where he killed Polonius. That scene’s definitely one of the best, and the grave-digger scene too. And though the climax isn’t the most thrilling, it does end on a very high note.
          I can see why this film is so revered as one of the finest Shakespearean adaptations. Though I don’t think it’s quite that -there are a couple that have better and more compellingly told their stories- I do think this deserves to be hailed as one of the greats. It’s superbly directed, brilliantly acted, exquisitely shot, and all round finely executed. It’s incredibly loyal to the play but also knows where to change or alter things to better relate them in the cinematic medium. It’s possibly Olivier’s greatest performance and a hell of a good interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

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