Dec. 19, 2007
Hamlet (1948)
Grade: 95/100

Director: Laurence Olivier
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Jean Simmons

What it's about. Laurence Olivier's film adaptation of William Shakespeare's famous play. Young adult Hamlet (Olivier) is Prince of Denmark, heir to the throne held by his uncle, Claudius (Basil Sydney).

Normally this would be good news, but there is reason for Hamlet's prolonged depression. His father the King recently died, and just one month later, his mother Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) wed the usurper uncle. Worst of all, Hamlet learns that Claudius murdered his own brother (and Hamlet's father) to attain the throne and queen.

Hamlet vows revenge. But he takes his time doing so, and even feigns madness as a strategy. This confuses his would-be mistress, Ophelia (Jean Simmons), while fascinating Ophelia's father Polonius (Felix Aylmer), an advisor to Claudius. Mostly because of Hamlet, tragedy falls upon both Ophelia and Polonius. This causes Polonius' rash son, Laertes (Terence Morgan), to confront Hamlet.

How others will see it. Purists are suspicious of this adaptation because of the liberties it takes with the play. The apparently inseparable (and indistinguishable) Rosencratz and Guildenstern are omitted entirely, along with Fortinbras and numerous minor speeches. The scenes and chronology of other speeches are changed, most notably the cultural mainstay "to be or not to be" soliloquy, which is moved to a lonely cliff.

Olivier also tinkers with the character of Ophelia, increasing her importance, hinting madness in her earlier, and making it appear that she was in love with Hamlet. In the source play, her madness is sudden, and is clearly inspired by her father's violent death.

Most viewers, however, will care little whether the film is slavishly faithful to Shakespeare's opus. Classic movie fans will be interested in Olivier, who after all won Best Actor for his performance. They will also appreciate young hottie Jean Simmons, and look for future stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee within the supporting cast.

Still other viewers will find the movie unwatchable. Not only is it in black and white, but the Olde English dialogue would be difficult to understand even if Shakespeare wrote plainly. Which he didn't. An expressed thought becomes a brief but profound essay. An action described includes allusions to the elegant and related. Shakespearean dialogue is so thick with concepts alien to our sense of brevity that the worlds fly faster than our capacity to comprehend it. Like a first-year Spanish student sent to Mexico, the best we can do is grasp scattered snippets of speech. We are mostly able only to conclude that only person Hamlet approves of is Horatio (Norman Wooland), Hamlet's more polite alter ego.

How I felt about it. "Hamlet" is the ultimate tragedy. All the important characters die except for Horatio. Its modern parallel is On the Beach where everyone dies. We spend the play sympathizing with Prince Hamlet, even after he betrays our concern by murdering Polonius, disrespecting his mother (marriage to an in-law is hardly incest), and even mocking Laertes, whose grief (he lost a father and a sister) exceeds his.

Shakespeare's strength isn't in the story or characters, but in their dialogue. Even an alleged fool, such as Polonius, is able to give his son a spectacular send-off before departing for France. But the remarkable dialogue isn't the cause for the greatness of Olivier's Hamlet, since pedestrian films have been made from the same play. Olivier's accomplishment as director draws partly from the cast and material, but mostly from the sumptuously distant cinematography, the careful pacing, and its confident and majestic presence.