Friday, February 15, 2019

"Hamlet" (1948)

I'd seen Laurence Olivier's Hamlet once before, probably between 2002 and 2004, though I'm not entirely certain.  I remember I was not a big fan of it, though I never bothered recording my thoughts on why.

Well, I watched it again this week so I could review it for We Love Shakespeare Week, and... I am still not a big fan of it.  Which I think says more about me and my personal needs from a Hamlet production than anything else, as there's nothing bad or wrong about this film.  It just doesn't work for me personally, and I'd like to explore that a bit here.

This is a very pretty film, in an austere way, with lots of lovely costumes and some stunning sets.  This Elsinore is cold and forboding, but not a place of decay or despair.  It's more like a place forsaken, emptied of life and passion.  And that's very much what I feel is missing from this whole film:  passion.  The words are here, the movements are here, but I can't connect to the emotions.  They may be hidden under the surface, but I just can't find them most of the time.  And that disappoints me.

These are the opening shots of the film.  Look how empty, how cold, how mystery-shrouded, yet barren they are.

For me, Hamlet is a story that focuses on the core emotions and problems of the human condition.  Being versus not being.  Following your emotions or your rationality.  Acting according to your convictions.  Duty and honor and obligation and desire.

But what does Olivier say this is?  He says this is primarily a story of a man who cannot make up his mind.  He states that right at the beginning of the film.  And I just don't see it that way.  So no wonder I disagree with his directing and acting!  I disagree with him on the whole point of the play.  (He directed it as well as starring, so I consider most of the decisions here to be his.)

Over and over, the camera looks at the characters from up high or far away, as if insisting that the audience maintain their distance.  This might also be trying to tell us that Hamlet feels detached from life, from the court, from the recent events.  He sits apart from the rest of the court in the opening scenes, though that's fairly typical staging.  But perhaps the repeated distancing of the camera from the action is meant to emphasize that separation?

I'm not saying they shoot everything from far away -- plenty of the action is closer to the camera, and once in a very great while, you even get a superb closeup.

But it's definitely a deliberate choice to keep looking at people from far away, and often from above.

Possibly they're trying to emphasize the theme of spying.  Hamlet is repeatedly spied upon during the play, by Polonious, by Claudius, by others (there's no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this version, but in the play, their whole reason for hanging out in Elsinore is to spy on him).  So that might be part of it -- putting us in the position of a spy.

There's one spot where Hamlet gets to do a bit of spying himself -- Olivier has him overhear Polonius and Claudius decide to watch him interact with Ophelia, which makes him later asking her where her father is very interesting -- he's testing her, trying to see whose side she's chosen.

Mostly, I think my problem with this version is that Hamlet himself seems very detached.  Cold, even.  It's like he's not allowing himself to feel anything at all.  Is he afraid of feeling too much?  Is he working extra hard to mask his emotions?  Holding himself very deliberately in check so as to remain aloof from all the trouble in Elsinore?  I DO NOT KNOW.  And that really bugs me.  I should know what he's feeling and thinking.  I don't want an inscrutable Hamlet, I want a Hamlet I can sympathize with.

Even with Ophelia, he's distant, remote.  I don't see love or passion or even friendly feelings in his scenes with her.  Maybe a little disappointment. Certainly no pangs of despised love.

I don't know why Olivier chose to play Hamlet this way!  Because it's very obviously deliberate.  He can play passionate, he can play emotional, he can play great depth of feeling.  I've seen him do it.  I like him really well in Rebecca (1940), Pride and Prejudice (1940), and Wuthering Heights (1939).  So why does he go all cold, dead fish for this?  Is it because he's 40 and feels somehow that he's too old for the role?  I don't personally think there's an age limit on how old or young you have to be to play Hamlet, but maybe he was worried about looking like he was trying to be younger than he was?  I wish I knew.

Now, Jean Simmons is amazing as Ophelia. She's nineteen, with a fragile, ethereal beauty.

She's got a very sweet, cute relationship with her brother, Laertes (Terence Morgan).

I like how he shields her a little from their blustery, somewhat gruff father Polonius (Felix Aylmer).

Really, this Ophelia is my favorite part of the film.  At such time as I watch this version again, it will be for her.  When she goes mad, you can't help but grieve, for she's like a lost little girl who needs rescuing.

But Hamlet remains detached from her, separated by himself, by others, and finally by her death.

Let's see, what about the rest of the cast?  I'm afraid Normal Wooland was a fairly boring Horatio.

Polonius (Felix Aylmer) and Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) were adequate.  But Claudius (Basil Sydney) disappointed me.  He wasn't conniving, he wasn't treacherous, he wasn't even interesting.  He was just kind of there.

I was rather charmed by Terence Morgan as Laertes, so that definitely pleased me.  Laertes is so often overlooked when casting and performing Hamlet, but I find him terribly important.  How he and Ophelia behave toward each other, and whether or not he serves as a good mirror image of Hamlet can elevate or drag down a production for me.

I felt like he could have been a little more tender toward Ophelia in their last scene together, but he did a great job being overcome with is emotions, so I'm okay with it.

So, when Hamlet comes back from his pirate adventure, usually he's played as being sort of settled down.  Calmed.  No more wild and whirling words.  He's ready for whatever his future holds.  But that's not at all the way I felt about him here!  If anything, he just seemed sort of relaxed and cheerful.  Playful, even!

In fact, I loved him in the gravedigger scene!  He finally felt alive and real.  I wish so much he'd been more like this for the rest of the movie, because if he had, I would absolutely dig it to pieces.

Is this a bad production?  NO.  It's beautifully shot.  It's nicely acted.  It just... does not suit me.

For the last few years, I've been "grading" the various Hamlet productions I watch when I review them.  Here's how this one measures up, for me:

Hamlet: B-
Horatio: C
Laertes: B+
Ophelia: A
Claudius: D
Gertrude: C
Polonius:  C
Overall Production: B

If you want to see how that compares to other versions I've seen, check out My Thoughts on Various Hamlet Adaptations.

I'll leave you with this gorgeous shot of Hamlet, all shrouded in confusion and being quite inscrutable.  Because it's really pretty.  And because I might have a teeny bit of a crush on Olivier right now.

This has been my final contribution to my We Love Shakespeare Week party!  I'll be posting the answers to the party games this weekend, and drawing winners for the giveaway on Sunday.  Be sure to check out everyone else's posts via the links here.


  1. Okay, sooooooooooooooooooooo I don't know enough about "Hamlet" to say whether I agree or disagree with your take on this adaptation; BUT this is a fabulous, thought-provoking post & it's made me consider all the influence a director has on the overall tone of an adaption . . .

    Great job! :D

    1. Jessica, I think a director has a HUGE impact on the overall feel of a play. Now, that direction/feel can be changed by the editor, and individual directors have more or less to do with the actual cinematography (setting up where cameras are, where lighting is, etc) depending on their own predilections, but yes, a director generally has a LOT to do with the feel/tone/look of a film.

      ANYWAY, I'm glad this interested you!

  2. It's strange that this is the one that won the Oscar for Best Picture! I've only seen the Kenneth Brannagh version, and I was really little and very confused. I should look into the others sometime!

    1. MC, I think that the Oscars have always liked proving to the world that they have really good taste by awarding Best Picture to something Very Classical Indeed from time to time, which might have had something to do with this winning. Olivier also won for Best Actor, though he lost to John Huston for Best Director. I've long been annoyed that Jean Simmons lost the Best Actress race. Anyway, like I said, this isn't a bad film, or a wrong interpretation of it, it's just not what I need from Hamlet. It's a story so broad and deep that it can have many valid interpretations. Which is why there are so many productions of it!

      Branagh's is quite wonderful. Seeing it again would certainly not be a bad idea, now that you're old enough to know what it's all about :-)

  3. How interesting! There are indeed so many ways to approach these plays. It's wonderful because there will be something for everyone, but by the same token, not all plays will work for all people.

    I also think it's fascinating that we both approached her plays from similar aspects. I realized what I needed out of a Macbeth from Fassbender's, and you see what you don't want in a Hamlet from this one. I wonder how many of the choices are tied to the era this Hamlet was made in? Great screenshots!

    1. DKoren, yes, I think that's a big part of why Shakespeare endures. He can be all things to all people, in a way, because his plays can be presented, interpreted, understood so many different ways. But that definitely means we'll all find versions we do and don't like.

      I think that the era definitely played a big part in what was expected from costumes, staging, scenery, and props for this movie. But I'm not so sure about the whole Hamlet-is-detached thing, just because I know that John Gielgud, who played Hamlet many times before this movie was made, said when directing the Burton version in the '60s that he totally disagreed with Olivier's conception of it being about a man who can't make up his mind. So I feel like this was a choice made by Olivier based on his understanding of the character and play, more than anything. That's my personal take, tho.

    2. DKoren, remember when I read Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom and went through a phase of, "I only like the play, not Hamlet himself" that was weird and atypical of me? I think Bloom may view Hamlet in a similar way to Olivier, based on what I remember of his book. That he's a man unknowable and separate and OTHER, and we need to accept him as inscrutable instead of relateable.

      Something like this, yes.

  4. Great and interesting post about Hamlet. I have neither seen it, nor read it. Although it is on my list of tragedies later this year. I visited Kronborg's castle last year, and there were lots of photos on actors and performances that took place there. Would be great to see it in this old castle. However, I probably have to go to the movies as well.
    Your post made me interested in the story and you have made great connections between the play, the characters and how it is filmed. Very interesting and another way to approach the play.
    I am working on my review (sorry, a little bit late) of The Taming of the Shrew. Will come soon.

    1. Thanks, Lisbeth! I hope you enjoy it when you do read/see it. And oooh, that sounds cool. I'd love to visit Elsinore someday when they're doing a Hamlet performances.

      Don't worry about lateness -- life happens, and I myself am behind on reading everyone's entries anyway, so no worries ;-)

    2. Elsinore was surprisingly cosy. Wonderfully situated by Ă–resund, and where Denmark is closest to Sweden. They had a special room full of pictures and information on Hamlet performances at the castle.

    3. Lisbeth, how cool! Definitely on my bucket list.


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