Hamlet (UK, 1948)

laurence_olivier_hamlet_movie_poster_2aDirected by: Laurence Olivier. At around the same time as Looking for Richard (and a super cheesy, 4-hour, PBS documentary about Shakespeare’s life which I didn’t want to dignify with a review), I found myself in a bit of a Shakespeare kick, and I figured, if I were to have such a cinematic kick, I would do well to start off with the canonical Olivier Hamlet. I’m no Shakespeare scholar, so I feel silly talking about this, but this one is my favourite from ole Shakey, and Olivier’s take on it isn’t as overwraught and quivering and intolerable as I assumed it would be. My previous knowledge of Olivier amounted to Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of him in the Marilyn Monroe movie with Michelle Williams (which was kind of crappy except for the acting). Turns out Olivier was actually top notch at making Shakespeare movies! All of the acting is just as it should be for a 1940’s British Shakespeare adaptation, with the upper class accents putting the “arty” elements up into the stratosphere, but the delivery of the lines still feels really fresh and personable, not like they’re reading a script that we’ve all heard a million times. The ultimate measure of a take on Hamlet is the lead actor’s reading of the “To be or not to be” speech, and Olivier’s passes the test for me—again, it’s fresh, spontaneous, the gravity of the words speak for themselves without the need for giant quotation marks all over it. Really, the flowery stylizing of the language is resisted (as much as possible in Shakespeare) in place of highly stylized mise-en-scène: between the sets, matte paintings, and lighting, it’s like a softer, less angular German Expressionism, not as whacky, but still obviously unnatural and presentational. Similarly, I loved how the camera seemed to have a mind of its own, as the film is full of independent, unmotivated tracking shots down hallways, around corners, cross-fades between locales, etc, as if the film is seeking out the action, finding the characters for us, which is really interesting. As glad as I was to have the film abbreviated from its full 4-plus hours, I missed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (but maybe I just missed Tim Roth and Gary Oldman). There were moments where I wondered what was going on, where my prior knowledge of the plot might be the only thing allowing me to connect the dots motivating the seemingly haphazard and ambiguous motivations of the characters and their cause and effect. But maybe these ambiguities are in the text. For instance, when I was stuck wondering “what’s going on with Ophelia?”, scholars for centuries have been fighting about that haven’t they? And the central ambiguity of Hamlet, how he feels about Ophelia, how much of his madness is feigned, what his deal really is, is all there for the viewer to chew on inconclusively for all time. So that’s kind of neat.

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One response to “Hamlet (UK, 1948)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2015 | Offhand Reviews·

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