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Review; **** Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948)

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This classic  production of Hamlet, with Laurence Olivier as Hamlet,  is available:

To Stream (or download) for Amazon Prime Members for £3.59 at Amazon.co.uk Laurence Oliviier Hamlet

To stream (or purchase) from Amazon.com for  $3.99 at Amazon.com Laurence Olivier Hamlet – streaming

As a DVD from Amazon.com for $21.96 fromAmazon.com Laurence Oliver Hamlet DVD

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Prices are indicative – check the actual price at the Vendors’ links above.

Our Bottom Line:

This is a classic production of Hamlet, Hdstarring Laurence Olivier, and  direted and produced by him. Loud cannon, braying trumpets and lots of men in tights are never far away and you might regard the whole action as too ‘sicklied o’er’ with pale mists but at the same time there is the spill of grave dirt from Yorick’s upended skull, a Hamlet and Horatio friendship that is as believable as their features are finely chiselled, and – the clincher for me – a wonderful and atmospheric score by William Walton.

 

Our Review (****)

The Academy Awards 2017 will soon be awarded and it is of note that the first non-American film to win the ‘Oscar’ for Best Picture was Olivier’s Hamlet. It also won in three other categories: Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Olivier; Best Art Direction; and Best Costume Design. Not bad for a classic tragedy at a time when you might think that post war audiences needed cheering up, although arguably Olivier’s heroic performance is as thrilling as you could wish. Not bad also when you consider that the villain of this urNordic Noir was once called Feng, that the Player King ‘is’ the second Dr Who, Patrick Troughton; that Peter Cushing is Osric and it is Christopher Lee who walks on (& off) as a spear carrier. So this Elsinore atop its beetling cliff is indeed a regal house of horror set about with the ‘trappings and suits of woe’.

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That award for Best Art Direction is perhaps better understood by its current name, Best Production Design, for this is Hamlet in stylish mode. It is in sharp black and white and its tracking shots are straight out of the M C Escher manual of impossibly ascending and descending stairs. In cinematographic terms it looks like an exploration of perspective with the expected symmetries half obscured by sea frets and wet stone. The Ghost blends in well. It’s significant, I venture, that this is one castle with no handrails to its stairs or battlements on its platforms. Osric, attempting yet another bow, does tumble down the steps but otherwise it’s just the camera that swoops and falls on the dark and moody sets of late expressionism. It lingers, very suggestively and more than once, upon the empty royal bed of Denmark. Less a ‘nasty sty’ than a what-might-have-been for Hamlet and Ophelia.

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From the beginning, ‘this is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind’. At any rate that is how we are encouraged to receive it, as ‘Hamlet the Uncertain’. However, that’s not how it works. More ‘Hamlet the Resolved. Near on two hours of textual content is cut: effectively Rosencrantz and  Guildenstern and Fortinbras go to’t – and Olivier’s Prince is dead-set on his revenge once he is up and out of his chair at the foot of the council table in the second scene. This is not a ‘dull and muddy-mettled rascal’, a ‘John-a-dreams’; no, this is played pretty fast and furious. Hamlet’s elation at the success of his ‘mousetrap’, laughing – literally ‘Ha, ha, ha’ – in the face of the King, and nearly pushing a torch into his beard, is positively exhilarating, as is the drama of the panic stricken court. Hamlet then stands on a table and bellows his triumphant song and it does not seem that long before he is plunging his sword into his damned uncle in the final scene. I counted three full length thrusts.

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That central scene of Hamlet and the Players (at 1.03.38) and then the dumb show is magnificently done, not least as it is introduced by Hamlet’s “Speak the speech” instruction to the actors, which – whatever your views on RP and Shakespeare – is a masterclass in choice diction and intonation. He then, unthinkingly, puts a blond wig on the boy actor, who will be playing the Player Queen, and is shocked at the immediate resemblance to Ophelia. It’s the blond braids that do it, framing the beauty of a 19 year old Jean Simmons, alongside the 41 year old Olivier. Their scenes together are, for me, close to the best in the film, second only to the consummate and consummating screenplay of its end.

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Loud cannon, braying trumpets and lots of men in tights are never far away and you might regard the whole action as too ‘sicklied o’er’ with pale mists but at the same time there is the spill of grave dirt from Yorick’s upended skull, a Hamlet and Horatio friendship that is as believable as their features are finely chiselled, and – the clincher for me – a wonderful and atmospheric score by William Walton.

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For your added delight you can see the original Daily Telegraph review of the film in 1948 at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/william-shakespeare/10782898/Shakespeare-LaurenceOlivieras-Hamlet-original-1948-Telegraph-review.html  .

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Let’s Play!

Alan Brown,
Editor
Players-Shakespeare.com

 

 

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