Hamlet (United Kingdom, 1948)

September 26, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Hamlet Poster

A glance at the IMDb listing for "Hamlet" turns up in excess of 70 entries, which is an indication of how popular a subject matter this most honored of Shakespeare's plays has been for cinematic adaptation. From the early silent era (1900) until today, versions of Hamlet have been sliced, diced, and re-worked into nearly every permutation possible. Stars of the highest magnitude have played the role, sometimes transforming a movie into a vanity production. Yet, of all these Hamlets, two stand out above the others: the 1948 Laurence Olivier version - the only Shakespeare film ever to win the Best Picture Oscar - and the 1996 Kenneth Branagh interpretation.

Considering that 90% of those seeing any production of Hamlet will know the story at the outset, the key to an adaptation's success is what the director does beyond the dialogue. That's one area in which Olivier's 1948 version excels. The actor/filmmaker's decisions regarding the text have been the subject of much debate over the years. He cuts about 40% of what's in the unabridged version, including all scenes featuring Fortinbras, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. The result is a streamlined Hamlet, with an unwavering focus on the lead character's internal turmoil and his interaction with Claudius (Basil Sydney) and Gertrude (Eileen Herlie). One potential negative of excising Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that these two are responsible for a lion's share of the comedy. Without them, Hamlet is a dark affair. Olivier attempts to lighten things a little by making Polonius (Felix Aylmer) more fatuous than is normally the case and by playing up the silliness of Osric (Peter Cushing). In general, however, this is one of the gloomiest versions of Hamlet to be found.

Oftentimes, movie versions of Hamlet come across as little more than gussied up transfers of the play from stage to film. That's not the case here, where Olivier opens things up considerably, utilizing many of the photographic advances evident in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (including deep focus) , occasionally panning from one room to another in Elsinore Castle, thereby emphasizing the size of the sets, and using the black-and-white imagery and shadows to give Hamlet an ominous feel. (At the time, Olivier argued that the use of black-and-white was an "artistic choice." In later years, however, he admitted that it was influenced by economics and a dispute he was involved in with Technicolor.)

Although the central story of Hamlet - that of an indecisive prince wavering between avenging his dead father, who may have been murdered by his uncle, or moving on with his life - remains at the core of the movie, some of the areas Olivier has elected to highlight deserve mention. Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia (Jean Simmons), which in some other interpretations has been emphasized as a tragic love affair, is downplayed here, with thought of any true affection being dismissed after Hamlet's angry, bitter "Get thee to a nunnery" speech. On the other hand, Olivier is fascinated by the Oedipal potential in the relationship between Hamlet and his mother - something he italicizes by having them kiss on the lips several times. Adding to the odd nature of this pairing is the fact that, at the time of filming, Olivier was 40 and the actress playing Gertrude, Eileen Herlie, was 11 years his junior. Even makeup can't conceal the obviousness that she is not old enough to be his mother.

For the cast, Olivier for the most part drew on actors with both stage and screen experience, and it shows in the quality of performances. All of the principals give quiet, intense portrayals that capture the essences of their characters without the tendency to go over-the-top that occasionally mars cinematic adaptations of plays (especially Shakespeare). Olivier won a deserved acting Oscar for Hamlet (he was also nominated for Best Director); no one before or since has equaled his interpretation. There are numerous standout scenes for Olivier, but three of the most memorable are the scathing "Get thee to a nunnery" exchange with Ophelia, the confrontation with Gertrude after Polonius' stabbing, and the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy. The cadence with which Olivier delivers Shakespeare's lines is so perfect that we sometimes forget we're listening to antiquated English.

The other actor to earn a nomination was Jean Simmons. It was her only Oscar chance in the Best Supporting Actress category (she would be nominated, but again would not win, as Best Actress in 1969 for The Happy Ending). Eileen Herlie, who plays Gertrude, has the distinction of having portrayed the same character in two different films. She returned to the stage and screen in the 1964 Richard Burton version of Hamlet to once again play the title character's mother. This time, at least she was older than her male co-star (although only by seven years). A number of future recognizable names have small parts in Hamlet: Peter Cushing is Osric, the fop who delivers the challenge to spar with Laertes; Christopher Lee is a spear carrier; Patrick Troughton, Patrick Macnee, and Desmond Llewelyn are all members of the acting troupe that visits Elsinore.

Hamlet is the middle segment of Olivier's three-picture venture into Shakespeare adaptations, with Henry V in 1944, Hamlet in 1948, and Richard III in 1955. Of the three, Richard III is arguably the most critically praised, but Hamlet received the most popular appreciation. In addition to becoming Shakespeare's biggest-ever Oscar triumph, Hamlet forever cemented Olivier's association with the Bard for motion picture audiences (a distinction that pre-existed for those who had followed him on stage in England). All told in his career, he appeared in seven (or eight, if you count his narration of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet) screen Shakespeare adaptations, three of which he directed.

When Kenneth Branagh began his Shakespeare binge in 1989 with Henry V, he was frequently compared to Olivier (and, in fact, will play Olivier in the upcoming film My Week with Marilyn), and the comparison grew stronger as Branagh turned out one Shakespeare adaptation after another. As a director, Branagh has surpassed Olivier's total, but he is still short in the acting department. Despite the comparisons, however, the two interpretations of Hamlet are radically different and, even seen back-to-back, are identifiable as substantially different approaches to the same story.

Oliver's Hamlet has a gothic, almost film noir appearance. Branagh's is bright and colorful, making use of the full Technicolor palette. Despite having opened up the production for the cinema, Olivier retains a sense of the intimacy of the stage; Branagh's interpretation is larger-than-life, extending to the way it was filmed - the last (to date) motion picture to be lensed in 70mm. Olivier hints at a possible sexual connection between Hamlet and Gertrude; for Branagh, the more traditional Hamlet/Ophelia liaison is used. Olivier's screenplay cuts close to 40% of Shakespeare's dialogue; Branagh opts for the full text, including scenes that are often excised. Olivier keeps the story in the original period; Branagh time-shifts it to the 1800s. Olivier's ending is in line with that of most versions of the play; Branagh has a radical re-interpretation. And so on...

For me, Branagh's Hamlet represents the ultimate screen adaptation of the play; it's hard to imagine anyone doing a more vivid, rousing job of breathing life into what may be the English language's greatest contribution to the stage. However, by viewing the equally artistic and accomplished Olivier version, it is possible to appreciate how great the differences can be even between masterpieces. Olivier's Hamlet is not the same as Branagh's, nor is it akin to the latest Broadway interpretation (likely star-studded) or the most recent one at the local high school (likely not star-studded). All Hamlets are not created equal and, when it comes to cinematic entities, Olivier's is near or at the top of a very crowded field. What's more, it has retained that coveted position for more than 60 years since the Oscars recognized it as such.

Hamlet (United Kingdom, 1948)

Run Time: 2:35
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1