Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier)

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A lingering, hard to escape question about this: should Shakespeare’s plays even be filmed, at least so straightforwardly as most directors seem to believe? Cinema doesn’t lend itself to the sprawl of his characters, the careful functioning of his words; actors, even the best of them, performing in a Shakespeare film seem to approach it as an exercise and some purely intellectual, almost medicinal “achievement” — rather than feeling the roles out, learning them intimately, living in them. Besides that, the language of film editing and mise en scene is too much of a distraction from Shakespeare’s — and vice versa.

But let’s get serious. No one is ever going to listen to a dictum like “you shouldn’t film Shakespeare’s plays.” It doesn’t escape the attention of my irony detector that the only two Shakespeare films I think are something akin to great are transformations of a play I’ve never particularly liked, Macbeth. On the other hand, I adore Hamlet, a blistering, detailed poetic diatribe to which our dramatic and cultural sensibilities owe so much — but this is the best film version of it I’ve seen, which isn’t saying much because it’s a stilted and frequently rather drab piece of work. But it’s worlds beyond the Zeffirelli rendition, at the very least, and I wasn’t nearly so tempted to take a nap as I was after five minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s “every word of Shakespeare included” four-hour edition (which I intend to see in full at some point and hopefully revise my tentative opinion). Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet still bears the marks of empty prestige here and there, but it has some splendid experimental touches, and thanks to its actor-director, no one can make any claim that it doesn’t feel “alive.”

Part of this is the result of Olivier’s keen sense of iconography to match the well-trod ground of the play he’s mounting. The foggy, disorienting cinematography of Desmond Dickinson (later to work on The Importance of Being Earnest and The Browning Version) approaches the Prince of Denmark’s inner and outer worlds as if he’s shooting a film noir. It’s canny and immersive, and recalls quite vividly the great German expressionistic films of Lang and Murnau at Ufa, particularly in the experimental passages dealing with the entrance and presence of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the King. In general, the photographic element gives the film a great atmosphere and sense of anxiety and unease, with shadows that extend into infinity and a pervasive blackness against everything. The towering, oblique set design is beautifully stark and foreboding; hopefully it’s not cheap of me to say it reminded me of the video game Minecraft with its strange, hulking stairways and sense of vertical space surrounding its stagelike interiors.

Unlike, say, the Mel Gibson variation, Olivier’s film makes no attempt to break Hamlet down into some macho fantasy — it’s a tragedy, plainly and simply. But although Olivier does a fine job with communicating the basic elements — sincerity, angst, and struggle with sanity — within Prince Hamlet in a boldly larger-than-life but impressively personal performance, he also has an oddly simplistic read of the character, motivated perhaps by the reductive reading he announces at the outset, of Hamlet as “the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” As Isaac Asimov has argued, this is a shoehorning of a point A-to-B logic into an elegantly complex characterization, particularly given that most of Hamlet’s own doubts about advancing with the killing of his father’s murderer, and indeed about the legitimacy of his need to carry out the vengeance set about by a ghost, are cut from Olivier’s script. As in the Zeffirelli film, Hamlet is almost too sensitive here; excluding a few of his chilly and witty moments with Ophelia and the traveling company of actors, he seems relatively free of the conflicted ambition that’s arguably one of his prime motives in the play itself.

Generally, however, Olivier carries himself over well, though I think his direction eclipses his acting here even if the Academy felt the opposite. As in most Shakespearean films, the acting is the sticking point, as we see brilliant performers like John Laurie (Francisco), Esmond Knight (Bernardo), and especially Jean Simmons (Ophelia) struggling mightily with the constraints the mixture of the film’s religious reading of its text and its ruthless editing of same places on them. Ophelia is likely the most harmed major character here (outside of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who remarkably fail to make the cut at all), a potential showpiece for Simmons reduced to a lot of contrived crazy: humming and floating in the most rote, clichéd possible read of the character. There are those who acquit themselves, still: Felix Aylmer’s Polonius is a nice out-of-nowhere injection of outrageousness, but the best work in the picture is by Basil Sydney and Eileen Herlie as Claudius and Gertrude, respectively. Sydney is seamlessly evocative in this setting, generating a perfect measure of contempt and empathy for his character; the complexity of his behavior and expressions during the “play scene” is remarkable. But Herlie’s is surely one of the major Gertrude performances captured on film or video, despite the strange age gap between herself and the character (she was, in fact, younger than Olivier); her relationship with Prince Hamlet is suggestive but subtle, another welcome contrast to the Zeffirelli film, and she and Olivier even add a fascinating quirk to her reading of the Queen by rendering her death, in a word, a suicide — she drinks the poison to prevent her son from doing so, as she’s become aware of her husband’s plan.

The key directorial decisions Olivier made for this project, outside of a few casting gaffes, were good ones; though never a properly A-listed filmmaker, he proves himself an adaptable artist. His less proud moments occur from the angle of his screenplay. The truncation in and of itself wouldn’t be bullshit, because movies are a different medium and should treat stories differently than theater — film always chokes the life out of plays, and vice versa — but if entire chunks of Shakespeare’s work are to be trashed, the obsessive adherence to the text that remains seems all the more pointless. A more freeform adaptation could’ve made this come alive. Is Shakespeare’s dialogue really so sacred that we cannot alter a word of it to suit a wholly different medium? The lockstep firmness of the format is very clearly what leads to the stilted nature of many of the scenes in this film — but that’s true of nearly all Shakespeare movies, so it’s unfair to lay the blame on this one. Or is it? Hamlet was a major game-changer, the first foreign film to win the Best Picture prize. The Academy made sure it would be the last for a great number of years. It was indeed an embarrassment within the Hollywood studio system — beginning its precipitous decline this very year — and AMPAS that a film from England should take the prize. But maybe, just maybe, it should’ve been an embarrasment much more because it’s, er, not really a movie? Just saying.

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