Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stubs – Hamlet

Hamlet (1948) Starring: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Stanley Holloway. Screenplay by Laurence Olivier. Based on the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare (London, 1601, published 1603). Directed by Laurence Olivier. Produced by Laurence Olivier.  Run Time: 155 minutes. U.K.  Black and White. Drama, Tragedy

There are several well-known film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, but perhaps none won bigger acclaim than Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948). Perhaps no actor in film history is closer associated with Shakespeare than Olivier. He appeared in a little over fifty films during his career, six of which were films based on the works of the Bard. Prior to Hamlet, Olivier had starred in As You Like It (1936) and Henry V (1944), the latter which he also produced and directed. For that film, he would receive Academy nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture, neither of which he would win, but he did receive a Special Award "for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen."

Following that triumph, Olivier returned to the stage and did not make another movie until he made Hamlet. Olivier adapted Shakespeare’s play, eliminating nearly half of the dialogue, three main characters from the play: Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and removing most of its political elements. Instead Olivier concentrated on the psychological and Oedipal aspects of the work.

The film opens on the battlements of Elsinore, where sentry Bernardo (Esmond Knight) relieves Francisco (John Laurie) of his watch. Bernardo asks him if he has seen anything. Another sentry, Marcellus (Anthony Quayle), arrives with Horatio (Norman Wooland), Prince Hamlet's friend. Twice previously, Marcellus has seen an apparition, but Horatio is skeptical. Suddenly, the three see the Ghost, and even though Horatio demands that it speak, the ghost vanishes then, without a word.

Inside the castle, there is a celebration in progress for the marriage of Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King Claudius (Basil Sydney). Everyone seems to be having a good time, with the exception of Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier). Something seems rotten to Hamlet about the circumstances; his father,the old King Hamlet has only been dead for a month, apparently killed by a snakebite, and his mother is already married to his Uncle.  

Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) with his mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King
Claudius (Basil Sydney) at a celebration in honor of their marriage.

Even after the court has left the Great Hall, Hamlet continues to fume over the hasty marriage, muttering to himself the words "and yet, within a month!" Soon, Horatio and the sentries arrive and tell Hamlet about seeing his father’s ghost. Hamlet accompanies them to the battlements and sees the ghost for himself.

After the celebration, Hamlet fumes over his mother's hasty marriage.

Hamlet follows the ghost, which beckons him forward, after which it reveals itself to be the Ghost of Hamlet's father (Laurence Olivier). He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it and how it was done as the audience sees the murder re-enacted in a flashback as the ghost describes – Claudius is seen pouring poison into a sleeping King Hamlet's ear, thereby killing him.

Hamlet does not at first accept what his father’s ghost tells him to be the truth, but prepares to act mad to test Claudius' conscience. Hamlet’s feigned insanity attracts the attention of Polonius (Felix Aylmer), the Lord Chamberlain. Convinced Hamlet has gone mad, Polonius pushes the point with the King. He tells him that Hamlet’s madness is derived from his love for Ophelia (Jean Simmons), Polonius's daughter. In order to convince the king, Polonius sets up a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. After overhearing their exchange, Claudius is convinced.

A wandering company of stage performers arrives at Elsinore and Hamlet invites them to stay, requesting them to enact the play The Murder of Gonzago for the king. Hamlet makes a few alterations to the play, so as to make it mirror the circumstances of his late father's murder. Claudius, obviously uncomfortable with the message being sent, calls out for light and retires to his room. Hamlet is now convinced of Claudius' treachery and seeks to kill him. He finds Claudius alone, praying. Not wishing to send his father’s killer to heaven, he decides to wait and bide his time.

Hamlet stops himself from killing the King.

He instead goes to his mother and confronts her about the matter of his father's death and Claudius' role. During this confrontation, he hears a voice from behind the curtain, and, believing it’s Claudius eavesdropping, plunges his dagger into the body. Hamlet discovers that he has killed Polonius instead. Hamlet is not very upset and continues to confront his mother. He then sees his father’s ghostly apparition and proceeds to converse with it. Gertrude, who cannot see the ghost, is now also convinced that her son has gone mad.

Hamlet confronts his mother.

Claudius finding out that he’s killed Polonius deports Hamlet to England, giving orders to have Hamlet killed once he arrives. Fortunately, Hamlet's ship is attacked by pirates, whom he befriends and who return him to Denmark.

Meanwhile, Ophelia goes mad over Hamlet's rejection and the idea that he had killed her father. She drowns herself, committing suicide. Laertes (Terence Morgan), Ophelia's brother, is driven to avenge her death, as well as his father's.

Ophelia (Jean Simmons) commits suicide when Hamlet rejects her.

Claudius and Laertes, after learning of Hamlet's return, prepare to have him killed. They want to make it look like an accident. Laertes is to challenge Hamlet to a duel, wherein Laertes will use a poisoned blade that will kill with a bare touch. In case that fails, Claudius also prepares a poisoned drink.

Hamlet is informed about Laertes’ challenge by Osric (Peter Cushing), a courtier, and accepts. Initially, the scheme Claudius and Laertes planned looks to be failing. Hamlet wins the first two rounds of the duel. Gertrude, suspecting poison, drinks from the cup intended for Hamlet.

In-between bouts, Laertes rushes Hamlet and strikes him on the arm, fatally poisoning him. Not knowing this, Hamlet continues the duel, eventually disarming Laertes and switching blades with him. Hamlet then strikes Laertes in the wrist, fatally wounding him.

Already mortally wounded, Hamlet wins the duel with Laertes.

Gertrude then dies from the poison, but not before warning Hamlet not to drink from the cup. While he lays dying, Laertes confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who then, in a fit of rage, flies down at Claudius from the top of the stairs, killing him. Only then does Hamlet die.

Horatio, horrified by all this, orders that Hamlet be given a decent funeral, and the young prince's body is taken away to the embattlements where the story began.

The young prince's body is taken away to the embattlements where the film began.

This film set a number of firsts when it came to Awards. Hamlet was the first film in which the leading actor had directed himself to an Oscar-winning performance. Olivier was the first actor to win an Academy Award for a Shakespearean role. The film was the first non-American film to win Best Picture and it is the only one to have won both Best Picture and the Venice Film Festival – Great International Prize of Venice (The Golden Lion). While the Venice Film Festival has been overshadowed by the Cannes Film Festival, Venice is the oldest (founded in 1932) and some say most prestigious international film festival. The film also won the BAFTA for Best Film From Any Source, but did not win Best British Film. That distinction went to Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol.

Hamlet was not without its critics. They pointed out the truncation of the play and the slant from politics to Oedipal fixation. The exclusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern robbed the film of any possible comedic moments which Shakespeare had included in the play.

Over the years, some of the luster has gone from Hamlet. Once considered to be the definitive cinematic Hamlet, that hasn’t stopped others from making their own adaptations of Hamlet, including Bill Colleran in 1964 directing Richard Burton in the lead; Tony Richardson in 1969 with Nicol Williamson in the lead; Franco Zeffirelli, in 1990 with Mel Gibson in the lead; Kenneth Branagh directing himself in 1996; Michael Almereyda in 2000 with Ethan Hawke in the lead; and Gregory Doran directing David Tennant in a BBC version in 2009.

Everything about this Hamlet screams seriousness, starting with the score written by William Walton. You know right away that you should leave any joy you had coming in at the auditorium door. This is a dark movie in almost every regard. The black and white cinematography by Desmond Dickinson is both reminiscent of German Expressionism as well as film noir. The sets are both improbably large but the passageways somewhat claustrophobic, as if playing against the public spectacle of the royal court and the dark, death-obsessed mind of Hamlet.

Olivier may be the great Shakespearean actor of his generation, but his performance here, especially nearly 70 years hence, seems stodgy and unrealistic. Perhaps it works better on stage, but his Hamlet on film comes off as a dated interpretation. It’s the kind of acting that you think of when you think of Shakespeare, which is unfair to the source material.

Despite their direction, a couple of the actors seemed to break through. Peter Cushing, best known as for his appearances in horror films and as Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars, practically disappears as Osric, the foppish courtier, which I think is a sign of how well he played the role. His Osric provides the only smiles and near laughs in an otherwise dour film. It should be noted that a frequent co-star of Cushing’s is also in the film; somewhere in the background, is a spear carrying Christopher Lee.

Peter Cushing plays Osric, a courtier in Hamlet.

Jean Simmons, who would have a long and distinguished career, was nominated for her role as Ophelia. The Academy has a history of rewarding actresses who play crazy or disabled, so the nomination as Best Supporting Actress isn’t really a surprise. Her madness just seems to come on her all at once. Perhaps there is more in the original play that explains it, but here she seems to snap like a twig.

Jean Simmons plays Ophelia and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy.

I also found myself liking Norman Wooland as Horatio. I think he had a very good presence in the movie.

While Olivier did edit out great portions of the play, I have no doubts that he respected the author of the play more than I can imagine. He excised portions and characters that took screen time away from the themes he wanted to concentrate on with his adaptation. Still, there are the usual quotable lines and soliloquies, though Olivier isn’t above truncating them as well. Despite that and even if you are a relative novice, this is one of those Shakespeare plays that you are no doubt more familiar with then you may realize as time after time something you’ve heard before will be spoken. 

"To be or not to be" is one of the famous soliloquies in Hamlet.

Olivier’s Hamlet is very much a filmed stage play, though there are a few shots outside the confines of a sound stage. This is not a film that plays well to a modern audience, who may be used to more natural acting. Practically everything Hamlet says is spoken with the same intensity and speed of delivery. This has been my complaint before about films based on Shakespeare’s works; if the dialogue is spoken too fast, the uninformed audience can get lost trying to keep up.

Some of the sets are impressive, but still somewhat bare.

There is a bit of flourish near the end of the film, when Hamlet and Laertes are involved in their swordplay. It must be criteria for a Shakespearean trained actor to be good with a sword, since both actors show a real flair, fighting with two swords each. But this little bit of action is not enough to save the film for me. I’ve seen old posters advertise this Hamlet as “One of the screens most exciting experiences,” but the film critic for Look magazine, to whom the blurb is credited, and I must have had very different experiences while watching it.

The swordfight at the end of the film offered some flourish.

Of the Shakespeare films we’ve seen and reviewed as part of Shakespeare September, Olivier’s Hamlet is perhaps my least favorite. I had trepidations about the film going in, remembering what bits I’d seen reminding me too much of school. Good films can introduce their audiences to new texts and give them an appreciation of that text. Great films accomplish this much more subtly and also draw the audience in. Olivier’s Hamlet never forgets its own importance and you get the feeling you are always on the outside looking in.

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