Hamlet (1948) Director: Laurence Olivier
“This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
As a follow-up to 1944’s triumphant Henry V, the writer/director/producer virtuoso Laurence Oliver returned with an absolutely iconic depiction of Hamlet in 1948 which won a string of awards including Best Picture (the first non-American film to win Best Picture) and Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), though Oliver ultimately lost Best Director to John Huston for his equally amazing film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In the end, Hamlet won four Academy Awards. Despite the omission of numerous characters and scenes (especially the absence of Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), as well as some revisionist dialogue, this dark and brooding masterpiece comes with high praise from me –one which I have seen several times now.
Even though I am something of a Shakespeare purist, I found Olivier’s Hamlet to be a wonderful imagining of Shakespeare’s most infamous play with a truly great performance from Olivier, as well as particularly striking set design and cinematography allowing us to experience Hamlet’s deep paranoia in a new way. Hamlet is perhaps the most difficult play to stage. I do not envy the job of casting this play/film –both the Ghost and the character of Hamlet are immensely complex characters– however Olivier’s performance as Hamlet is almost as if out of a painting. Notably, there is a strange Oedipal undertone throughout the film as Hamlet seems to have replaced his love for Ophelia with affection for his own mother. This seems to highlight Hamlet’s desire to protect his mother’s chastity.
In addition, the towering, shadowy halls of Elsinore carry all the markings of a German Expressionist style of cinema, though perhaps not quite as oblongly Expressionist as Orson Welles’s Macbeth released that same year. The set designs are perfect for capturing the echoing loneliness that fills Denmark in the reign of the usurper, Claudius. Also, the portrayal of Ghost of Hamlet’s father (also played by Olivier) is as fearsome as it is compelling. In the closing scenes when Hamlet jumps upon Claudius to kill him, it was originally thought to be too dangerous a stunt for Olivier to perform, but nevertheless he completed the stunt with no problem, but the stuntman playing Claudius was knocked unconscious and lost a few teeth. Interestingly enough, this film also features one of the first credited on-screen performances of Christopher Lee who plays a background spear-carrier.
I’m reticent to say much more, I’d prefer to simply let this magnificent film speak for itself.