Hamlet (Laurence Olivier, 1948)


Yeah, this wowed me alright.  More than any other Hamlet adaptation I’ve seen, Olivier’s wowed me.  Yeah, Kenneth Branagh’s version in 1996 had the big budget and the beyond-magnificent sets and all the A-list starts and the bragging rights of being the only completely unabridged film adaptation of Hamlet ever made, but that version was more about production value than anything.  Right here, Oliver’s version gets down to the nitty-gritty of the performances, of the emotions both over the top and subtle, of the psychological elements, rather than grandstanding the actors and the performances with outside elements like sets, or other things that a stage production cannot provide and the filmmaker feels obligated to include to make this Hamlet different from all other Hamlets.  As both director and lead actor, Olivier certainly overdoes it here and there in trying to make his performance the be all and end all of all conflicted Danish princes, as well as try to make his skill as a director a bit too obvious and flashy, but overall, that’s rare.  So this film excises Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the Fortinbras subplot…so what.  IMO, they were superfluous to the story of Hamlet’s indecisions concerning avenging his father’s death at the hands of Claudius, anyway.  Olivier’s “Hamlet” may be abridged, but make no mistake, it’s the essential film adaptation of perhaps the greatest story ever written.

As I said, Branagh’s version was an absolute visual spectacle, and employed some of the most well-renowned actors on the planet…but in the end, some of that starpower was more distracting than anything, especially in some inexplicable cameos (Robin Williams?  Richard Attenborough?  Gerard Depardieu?), and maybe the grand hallways and unfathomably elaborate and beautiful sets and outstanding production value were just too good…I found myself admiring the sets a little too much, and as a result had a bit of a hard time following what was going on, especially given the fact that every single word of the original text was included.  And Franco Zeffirelli’s version?  A bore.  Elsinore was just a series of bland, brown, cavernous chambers, and Mel Gibson was all wrong for the title role.  Boring setting, boring lead performance.  But here, decades before either of those versions, comes Olivier’s film, and to me it was the perfect blend of the essence of a stage play with the subtle benefits that a camera can provide to those stage play elements.  I think I was much more fond of this version of Hamlet because, quite simply, I was able to follow along with the story much more easily than I ever have.  I’ve read Hamlet and seen adaptations of it many times before this, but never have I been able to follow along with the story so easily.  Could be the great performances all-around, could be the impressive yet never too attention-grabbing sets, could be the astonishing production value and staging, or could be all three.  First, on Olivier’s performance…as I said, Mel Gibson was a bore, and Branagh, while clearly into it with everything he had, was too stagy and over the top for my taste.  Now, was Olivier too old to play the part?  Of course he was, but so is just about every other actor who’s played the part professionally.  At times, he takes his performance a little too seriously, but mostly, he lends his Hamlet a weight of dignity, so that even during the prince’s most irritatingly insecure moments, Olivier’s Hamlet is convincingly unsure of himself, yet has an air of nobility at the same time, never going completely over the top, even when feigning madness in his plan to avenge his father.  He’s a convincing madman, but not too mad, rushing his lines but not too much, and then at the press of a button gets all stagy for the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, but still maintains his dignity.  All in all, he’s a little showy, and a little subtle, but never diving into the deep end of either extreme – exactly what’s called for from a Shakespearean actor.

Olivier and all the actors around him are uniformly excellent, and exactly what you’d expect out of a top-notch Shakespearean production, but the clincher with this specific version was the astonishing production value, particularly the cinematography and staging.  The sets, while obviously not as ornate or impressive as in, say, Branagh’s version, are actually kinda bland, but still grand and imposing and impressive enough to be a factor, while never upstaging the actors and the performances, which is the key.  At night, particularly when Hamlet encounters his father’s spirit, fog permeates the roof of Elsinore – clearly fake fog, sure, but it’s still appropriately atmospheric.  But my god, what cinematography!  If it weren’t for “Citizen Kane,” I’d say that “Hamlet” revolutionized the concept of deep focus.  There’s some obvious fantastic shots, like…

Great staging of characters, in a setting conducive to a long shot, perfectly symbolic of the emotional distance between Hamlet and Ophelia: those are the eye-grabbers.  But then look at a more subtle shot like…

It’s not a shot that’ll make you awestruck, or is even particularly noticeable, but it’s just a solid, incredibly impressive piece of staging, Hamlet in the foreground, Horatio in the middle ground, and Marcellus and Barnardo in the background.  Every character in the scene is incorporated into that single shot, so even as Hamlet muses, we can easily see how the other characters react, and they’re all staged perfectly so that Hamlet is the main focus, and rightfully so, but the others have their say as well: subtle, immeasurably impressive and economical filmmaking.

Now look at this:

I’m not sure if special effects are incorporated here, or if this is an actual shot of Horatio and company in the foreground and Hamlet, following the meeting with his father’s spirit, way off in the background.  If it’s real, it’s just another instance of incredible staging and deep focus, and if it’s special effects, kudos for making it damned convincing.  And the same goes for the film’s final, astonishing shot, as the camera glides slowly from room to room of Elsinore – could be a single take, could be helped along by effects, scale models, etc., but either way, it’s enormously impressive.

Does Olivier as director overplay his hand now and then when it comes to stylistic decisions?  Sure he does.  Just look at this…

Not exactly subtle on Olivier’s part to match up the head of Hamlet’s shadow with Yorick’s skull 😆 .  But it’s still nifty, as is just about everything else, especially the seemingly impossible angles that the camera will go to, or the seemingly impossible way it glides from one end of a scene to the other, never more obvious than during the play within a play.  The camera begins on the left side of the room, where Hamlet lays his head in Ophelia’s lap, effortlessly glides backwards and to the right, stopping momentarily behind the heads of King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, so that you can’t see Claudius’ face, but just know that he’s getting antsy seeing the pantomime recreation of his murdering his brother, just as Hamlet anticipated, and then the camera pans to the right towards the other end of the stage, where Horatio stands, and starts gliding back again.  Superfluous cinematography, sure, but astonishingly impressive nonetheless, as is the cinematography in scenes like Hamlet and Laertes’ big duel, where the camera begins practically on the ceiling and hypnotically travels downward until it reaches the actors, making a scene of straight-up dialogue in a huge castle seem that much more epic in scope.  Notice also the heart-like drumbeat that announces the appearance of the ghost, first on the roof of Elsinore, then when Hamlet confronts his mother.  It’s an obvious aural cue, but when it’s combined with the subtly unsettling camera movement, moving back and forth from Hamlet’s face to the same beat as that heartbeat, it’s still haunting, and is a good indicator that the Danish prince’s feigned madness might not be so feigned after all.  Prince Hamlet is perhaps the most well-known indecisive, conflicted protagonist in all of fiction, and Olivier the director and Olivier the performer convey that well.

So what’s the bottom-line?  The bottom-line is that Olivier, as director, employs some flashy staging and camera and sound techniques that a hotshot rookie director looking to make it big would use.  But screw it, I fell for it, and was hypnotized, ‘cuz really, most of the greatest moments of staging are pretty much unnoticeable anyway, and very cleverly incorporate all of a given scene’s important characters into the frame, effectively recreating a stage play experience, only more intimate, so how could that possibly be a bad thing?  It’s well-acted, atmospheric, moody, psychological, tense, technically solid at its worst, astounding at its best, and easy to follow.  So yeah, good shit.

Some more purty pictures:



1 comment so far

  1. Laura on

    Hi, I am curious to know where you obtained these images. I am a photo researcher working on an independent project and there is one image in particular you have posted here that we would love to use. Any chance you can help?
    Kind regards, Laura
    PS- We are on a deadline and would appreciate a quick response.:-)

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