I've been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture, and next on my list was the 1948 winner, Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, directed by and starring the great actor.
Olivier's Hamlet is a stylistic, streamlined adaptation that will give Shakespearean scholars much to discuss. In the title role, Olivier is both subdued and explosive. Jean Simmons, as Ophelia, is heartbreaking. While this film looks like a product of its time, it is a timeless, must-see classic.
The movie's competitors for Best Picture that year were Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
First, a little disclosure. I am a Shakespeare buff who eagerly seeks out Shakespeare productions. While I haven't read every single play by the bard, I've read all the major ones, most of his sonnets, and have taken several Shakespeare courses, including a graduate level course, to boot.
Hamlet has been one of my enduring favorites, ever since first reading it in high school. While I have since grown to love other Shakespeare plays, such as The Tempest, I know Hamlet so well I practically have it memorized. Over the years, I've seen a variety of productions, from the excellent, bare-bones Kevin Kline television version (1990) to Kenneth Branagh's extravagant wide-screen spectacle (1996). I even watched Mel Gibson's scenery-chewing turn in the Franco Zeffirelli film (1990). (Honestly, I expected much more from Zeffirelli, who gave us the effervescent 1968 Romeo and Juliet.)
In addition, I saw a performance by a traveling group of performers who strived to perform the play very much like it would have been done in Shakespeare's day.
All of these performances offered a different interpretation, partly based on setting and costume. Do they seek to contemporize the play? Do they set it in an unusual setting? Take liberties with the script? How do they handle staging? And most importantly, how is the central character of Hamlet handled?
There's been much debate over the years about whether to portray Hamlet as somebody who is faking madness and, if so, just how far to push that aspect of the performance. Kevin Kline accentuated that aspect of it with his version, his Hamlet taking advantage of the gullible Polonius in order to convince the court that he is mad and, therefore, less of a threat to the king.
If you're not familiar with the plot of Hamlet, a brief summary: Hamlet learns from his father's ghost that his father was murdered by Hamlet's uncle, who has since married Hamlet's mother. For much of the play, Hamlet wavers about whether to enact the revenge his father's ghost urged, hampered by emotional reactions to the situation.
Branagh chose a similar route to Kline's, faking madness, although his Hamlet was a bit more toned down. He allowed the lavish production to provide the spectacle and kept his portrayal more naturalistic, which is characteristic of his Shakespeare films.
Mel Gibson, God bless him, was painfully overwrought, looking very much like an amateur high school actor. Glenn Close, with her comparative restraint, outshone him in the relatively minor role of Gertrude, the queen.
Olivier, however, takes a different approach. In his interpretation, Hamlet is clearly not mad, at least not in the way people suspect. Nor is he attempting to appear so. Rather, he is driven by a thinly-concealed anger that drips out in the sarcastic mutterings that members of the court mistake for insanity. That he is mad, tis true, but mad in a very different way from the way they assume.
Classically trained, Olivier enunciates with precision. His slow, deliberate way of talking carries a certain menace, punctuated by unrestrained outbursts, where his emotions overcome him and he takes drastic actions.
In the scene with Ophelia, when he realizes they're being overheard, he throws her to the ground, leaving her in tears with his parting words, "Get thee to a nunnery." Those words, of course, were intended more for the people he knew were listening from behind a curtain, Polonius and King Claudius. So when he rails against women and marriage, saying, "God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another," he is really speaking for the benefit of Claudius and, indirectly, criticizing his mother, who married his uncle only two months after her husband's death.
This dynamic gives extra weight to the scene where the courtiers are watching a play by traveling actors. After treating her so viciously, Hamlet approaches Ophelia in full view of the court, makes suggestive comments to her, and sits on the floor in front of her, his head on her knees, as she sits stiffly, her hands on the arms of the chair. There is an implied menace there, almost akin to sexual assault.
Olivier takes advantage of the nature of film to streamline the play. He fades between scenes, cutting out the expository dialogue. In addition, some soliloquies are done as voice-overs, juxtaposed over Hamlet's face. The exception is the "To be or not to be" speech, which he delivers aloud, seated on a high turret, gazing down at a turbulent ocean. Here, he idly contemplates whether to stab himself or perhaps to jump. His location gives new meaning to some of the water references in that speech.
Whereas some actors portray Hamlet as tortured during this speech, Olivier plays it as if he is merely testing out the thought, just as he tests out thoughts of revenge throughout the movie, failing to take action.
Of course, one of the interesting aspects of Hamlet is that he is a university student. Even giving some allowances for differences in custom at the time the play was set, he's still a fairly young man. Yet, he's almost never played by a young man (with the exception being Ethan Hawke's 2000 version, which I have not seen, during which he was 30). When most major actors perform the role, they are in their late 30s or early 40s. Olivier himself was 41. In this film, the woman who plays Ophelia, Jean Simmons, was only 19 at the time, which gives an added dimension to the threat that Hamlet seems to represent.
Simmons turns in a heartbreaking performance. Unlike some other portrayals of Ophelia, she makes it clear that, while it upset her, it wasn't Hamlet's cruelty that caused her to lose her mind but, rather, grief over her father's murder.
As Hamlet's nemesis, King Claudius, Basil Sydney is overbearing and officious, so that one can understand how his self-serving, grand speeches could make the rightful heir to the throne seethe. After all, by marrying Gertrude, Claudius supplanted not just King Hamlet but also Prince Hamlet, who otherwise would have ascended to the throne.
This production was clearly ahead of its time. Although it was made in 1948, it looks very much like a 1950s production, down to the short fringe bangs on Ophelia's long wig and the sets, which have a stark, artistic quality very reminiscent of 1950s aesthetics. The nearly empty, stage-like sets contain only the necessary furniture, such as chairs or a bed, going back to a Shakespearean tradition.
The movie makes innovative use of film techniques, not just by cross-fading between scenes or by showing things on-screen that normally happen off-stage, but by using camera movement to move action forward. So, for example, as Ophelia lies crying on the steps in one room, the camera sweeps outward and takes long, winding steps to the next scene, much like Hamlet himself leaving the room. These winding stairs become characteristic of the play, imitating the fruitless wanderings of Hamlet's mind.
Because of these techniques, the movie manages to skip much of the expository dialogue, arriving in media res, as action is already taking place. This is a brilliant way of condensing a very long play, which could easily run more than three hours. Olivier's version clocks in at 155 minutes, or about 2 1/2 hours.
This does, however, mean that the minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (made famous by the Tom Stoppard play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) are completely written out. Perhaps Olivier felt that the light banter Hamlet exchanges with his school friends distracted from the brooding quality of his performance.
Olivier's version is an actor's play, as evidenced by one scene he retains: Hamlet's instructions to the traveling actors, in which he pontificates about good versus bad acting. This was Shakespeare's opportunity to share his opinions about acting, and it is clearly Olivier's inspiration, as well:
Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o'erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.
While Olivier's version is innovative, making full use of the advantages of film, it is a faithful adaptation, paying careful attention to Shakespeare's philosophy of acting. Olivier suits the action to the word, never overstepping, and his film gives form to the very age and body of the time.
Rating (out of 5): *****
It is possible to be both of your time and timeless.