Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

68. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948)

Olivier Hamlet poster

I first saw Olivier’s Hamlet sometime in 1988 or 1989 in my English class as a senior in high school.

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The film was Shakespearean kryptonite for teenagers: a shaky black and white print of a study of melancholia expressed with exaggerated erudition. The very notion that I should flatter such work with some kind of class or cultural worship was repulsive. I doubt my wonderful teacher fully grasped how much damage this did to my appetite for the bard, and how jaded it made me towards Olivier.

Years would pass before I gave Olivier a mature, second chance.

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My appreciation of Shakespeare was eventually repaired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, and several fine films. My actor friend Kevin Crawford insisted I not dismiss Olivier, and his Richard III (1955) is technically brilliant. The meta-historical framing device of his Henry V (1944) is fascinating and lively. Belatedly, Olivier entered my canon—yet somehow, I haven’t yet reviewed his Hamlet here despite the fact that the Criterion Collection DVD has been in my film library for a decade. I am terrified of feeling 17 again, I know it.

Olivier’s Hamlet is almost a masterpiece. If a restored version of the film should come to pass, perhaps it already is a masterpiece. More on that later.

The film opens with a crane shot passing through clouds to arrive at the mazelike geometry of Elsinore keep. This cinematography is suggestive of a Freudian investigation into dreaming (and mysterious shots of the royal bedroom seem to corroborate this acute state of dreaming). There are Oedipal overtones as well, tying into Freud’s thoughts about Hamlet that were systematically applied by Ernest Jones in “The Oedipus-complex as an Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive.” (While this is the first film of Hamlet in the era of sound motion pictures, and the setting is perfectly traditional, Olivier was exploring what was then some recent theoretical approaches to Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.)

Then Olivier (in a voice-over) delivers part of Hamlet’s speech to Horatio in observing his uncle’s reveling as they await his father’s ghost:

So oft it chances in particular men
That, for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As in their birth,- wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin,-
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else—be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo—
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

Before he is told that his uncle is a murderer, Hamlet is already suffering from melancholia, and feels too much in common with those he hates. The person Hamlet is most suspicious of is, of course, himself.

The speech is followed with a pan towards a parapet where a procession has brought Hamlet’s corpse, and Olivier (again in voice-over) offers an explicit thesis for the film: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

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Is Hamlet’s mole of nature his indecision, or is it his own sense of lust, of paranoia, of violent urges that he is trying to control?

He and his mother kiss on the lips rather more often than seems appropriate, and the length of those kisses makes one wonder.

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I should point out that beginning a film that may seem painfully academic with a thesis statement further enhances the sense that the movie is going to be a chore, so thankfully the incestuous overtones actually livens up this ponderousness.

If Freud and Ernest Jones seem to be the theoretical godfathers of this Hamlet, the thesis would seem to indicate that Emerson Venable is the other (his The Hamlet Problem and Its Solution appeared as a book in 1912). Frankly, I prefer the Venable text to its treatment in this film. But a film of Hamlet is of course a tricky proposition, since there is no normal sense of action until late in the third act. Hamlet delays his revenge, and thinks about his delays, and thinks about his thinking about his delays. In Olivier’s conception of this problem, indecisiveness is Hamlet’s hamartia. But in Venable’s conception, if memory serves, the problem is that Hamlet distrusts himself to enact revenge for his father’s murder because he identifies too closely with Claudius, and his loathing of Claudius is something that he himself suspects. Hamlet’s struggle is not so much that he cannot make up his mind, but that he is trying to be the master of his own will. He wants to be the dispassionate executioner rather than someone who derives personal satisfaction from violence.

Olivier depicts Hamlet as someone suffering from profound melancholia. He slouches on his princely throne. His mind may seem muddled from this depression, perhaps. He should be in bed. He should be sleeping, if only he did not have bad dreams.

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The cinematographer, Desmond Dickinson, moves the camera lot around this wonderful set of Elsinore keep. It’s as if the camera cannot make up its mind sometimes, in determining whose story this is, in determining where in the castle it will go. I would love to see a remastered version of this film, if the print were sharper, and if the camerawork could be stabilized more than a hald-century after the fact, as the camera does wobble sometimes. Nothing as emetic as The Blair Witch Project, but still.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Laertes confronts Claudius. The scene begins with the dialogue far off, as Ophelia is walking down a long corridor to interrupt their business. It’s as if the camera cannot quite make up its mind whose story this is, which is the genius of Shakespearean drama—all the characters matter.

The cinematography makes this film better each time one watches it. For example, during the “Murder of Gonzago,” the camera keeps finding Horatio, who is watching the watchers of the play for their responses, as Hamlet’s other, perhaps better pair of eyes.

Ophelia’s death scene is also remarkably performed. Most productions have the good taste not to show it, and let the poetry of Gertrude’s speech announcing her death suffice. The harshness of her death would deny her the tenderness of the grief Gertrude and the court of Denmark will feel for her.

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Olivier and Dickinson, however, somehow recreate the fairy strangeness of John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia floating downriver in a very narrow, overgrown channel. The camera pans away from when her dress drags her down, leaving instead an empty landscape with a running river.

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I have often asserted that every production of Hamlet is made or broken by its Ophelia, which is the most challenging role. Jean Simmons is a remarkable Ophelia, conveying such intelligence, sensitivity, vulnerability, and a madness that is trying so strenuously to make the world make sense.

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Another fine performance comes from Normand Wooland, who plays Horatio with such an emotive force that counterbalances Olivier’s generally bland depressiveness as Hamlet.

Eileen Herlie plays Gertrude remarkably well, and the Freudian themes seem more plausible for her relative youth (she was actually significantly younger than Olivier).

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trimmed from the play, removing some comic relief.

Peter Cushing, Grand Moff Tarkin for you Star Wars fans, plays the flamboyant courtier Osric with a fun gusto, however, that seems satirical without being grating.

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Basil Sydney as Claudius, Peter Cushing as Osric.

None of the performances are bad, although Felix Aylmer’s mutton-chopped Polonius seems a little generic and on-the-nose to me.

In the final analysis, the initial descent through the clouds seems to infect this film experience for me. Olivier could have used color film, but chose black and white “to achieve through depth of focus a more majestic, a more poetic image, in keeping with the stature of the verse” (151). Maybe that’s how the film looked in 1948, but on the Criterion edition DVD the overall effect is often of a slightly weak focus, and an unsteady camera. It’s reach exceeds its grasp. Great, but not as great as it could be, or perhaps was.


Source: Olivier, Laurence. Laurence Olivier: Confessions of an Actor. New York: Touchstone, 1982.


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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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