Hamlet – 1948 | 153 mins | Drama | B&W
Interpretations of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, which was first performed in 1603, have been of infinite variety. In this film, one of the finest films ever made of the bard’s plays, Sir Laurence Olivier has hastened the action of the play and simplified its central character. From the moment when Hamlet is charged to avenge the murder of his royal father he is shown as a sane but sensitive, virile but vacillating prince – a man who could not make up his mind,’ yet as robust as Olivier’s screen portrayal of Henry V.
Magnificence and grandeur bring beauty to the sombre setting of the drama. The bare halls and winding stairways of Elsinore Castle are relieved by murals and frescoes painted in sepia tones, by rich costumes made from rare materials and fine embroidery, by the medieval jewels sparkling in the crowns of the King and Queen, and by the flash of swords and the dull glint of armour.
Opening shots of swirling fog over an ancient castle set the mood: this Hamlet is of a tradition almost forgotten in our post-modern need to outfit pre-modern texts in more contemporary trappings. The score by William Walton rises portentously. And the omniscient director intones that we are about to see the story of “a man who could not make up his mind.” In one of the unintentional ironies of this production, the famous soliloquy which delineates the protagonist’s ambivalence so clearly and eloquently is also one of the most overwrought and ineffective scenes in the film. When Hamlet counsels the Players on the proper reading of their lines, he warns them not to offend nature with declamation that is unnatural. Would that this film always heeded that advice. There are moments when the conventions of the cinema of its time threaten to overtake the story: revelatory plot points accompanied by loud musical flourishes and tight close-ups of tortured, scandalised faces.
Fortunately these moments are few. The awkward soliloquy, for example, is preceded by a wonderful scene between Hamlet and Ophelia and followed by a well-turned entrance for the Players. It is the preponderance of the good over the occasional misfire that keeps the overall quality of the production high. Like the drums which echo from the ancient walls and huge pillars of the palace. Despite some staginess in the film, Olivier’s production is a challenge that quickens the pulse not less than the high achievement of polished art and Olivier also gives one of his greatest performances as the brooding title character, his reward was at the 1948 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture and Best Actor.
Laurence Olivier: Director
Carmen Dillon: Art Direction
Reginald Beck: Associate Producer
Anthony Bushell: Asst Producer
Desmond Dickinson: Cinematography
Roger Furse: Costume Designer
Helga Cranston: Editing
William Walton: Music
Muir Mathieson: Music Direction
Alan Dent: Script
Eileen Herlie: Gertrude, the Queen
Basil Sydney: Claudius, the King
Laurence Olivier: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Norman Wooland: Horatio
Felex Aylmer: Polonius, Lord Chamberlain
Terence Morgan: Laertes
Jean Simmons: Ophelia
Peter Cushing: Osric
Stanley Holloway: Gravedigger
Russell Thorndike: Priest
John Laurie: Francisco
Patrick Troughton: Player King