February 2015 – Hamlet (1948, Laurence Olivier)

This did nothing for me I’m afraid. I’ve tried with Olivier’s Hamlet before and just never been able to get through the film. It’s not Shakespeare’s fault. I’m fine with the Bard, as long as it’s not one of his comedies. Many claim this is the definitive version but I’m pretty sure they’ve never watched it all the way through either because he’s cut out poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern altogether and Fortinbras is a no-show. Olivier’s movie feels sterile and lifeless, an example of why most people find Shakespeare a chore and a precursor to those unwatchable BBC costume dramas that led Richard Curtis to create the Hamlet inspired The Black Adder (83). hamletI’ve never much cared for Laurence Olivier as an actor despite his considerable reputation. For all his technique he’s a supercilious presence. Too haughty and self-regarding to empathise with. It suits him in Spartacus (60, Stanley Kubrick) where his performance as the defender of Rome Marcus Crassus is far more complex and interesting than the Christ-like figure Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay turns Spartacus into. Most of the time though he’s a chore and representative of the overly high regard afforded to British theatre actors when they venture onto the big screen. As Hamlet he’s insufferable, overly affected in his mannerisms and delivery. At 40 too old to play a student prince altering the part from a young man at a key point in his emotional development to a middle-aged mope.

Any adaptation of a play has to find a way to become more cinematic. Olivier tries to distract from the theatricality of his production by over-directing almost every scene. Director of photography Desmond Dickinson’s camera flies about the Pinewood sets like it’s attached to a bird. It follows behind the actors as they walk and talk, floats through hallways, and spins around at key moments. The intention seems to have been to give the impression of a ghostly observer watching over events but it feels more like they got a crane for Christmas and can’t stop themselves using it. Compare it with Orson Welles Macbeth made the same year and see the difference between a visionary filmmaker and somebody who’s simply trying to hard. hamlet2There are more interesting adaptations of Hamlet around. Soviet director Grigory Kosintsev’s 67′ version (pictured above) is clearly influenced by the look of Olivier’s film but his framing of scenes is more precise. Each shot conveys meaning and the camera work is unobtrusive. A silent era filmmaker and by then a veteran in his 60’s he shows a far greater understanding of how cinema works. Zefferelli’s Hamlet (90) may be workmanlike but it makes the most of it’s Scottish locations and benefits from Mel Gibson’s mentally unhinged screen presence.

The only real pleasure I found in Olivier’s Hamlet was in spotting the various well known faces who appear in supporting roles and would play a huge part in British popular culture. John Laurie of Dad’s Army (1968-77) fame, and the fiercely religious Scottish Islander in Michael Powell’s debut film Edge of the World (37). That film’s leading man Niall MacGinnis is in here too. As are Anthony Quayle, Hammer alumni Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the second Doctor Patrick Troughton, Bond movie stalwart Desmond Llewelyn, and The Avengers (61-69) star Patrick MacNee.

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