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Hamlet (1948)

1 rating: 5.0
A movie

William Shakespeare's tale of tragedy of murder and revenge in the royal halls of medieval Denmark. Claudius, brother to the King, conniving with the Queen, poisons the monarch and seizes the throne, taking the widowed Gertrude for his bride.   … see full wiki

1 review about Hamlet (1948)

A great movie...exciting, tragic, engrossing...but most of all, cinematic

  • Mar 6, 2011
  • by
I'm no more competent to discuss Hamlet as literature than I am to ride a horse. So let's talk about it as a story and as a movie. On both counts, this 1948 version -- shaped and edited, directed by and starring Lawrence Olivier -- is powerful and engrossing. You have to sit back and allow yourself to get into the rhythm of blank verse. You have to accept the nature of classic British acting's Shakespearean diction...precise and too often declarative. If you can manage this, you'll be rewarded with a fine cinematic experience.
The story is so well known that it doesn't need much repeating. A son's father dies. He suspects murder by the man who subsequently married his mother. The ghost of his father seems to confirm this. He is determined to pursue vengeance. He eventually succeeds but at a cost of many lives lost due largely to his own demons. "...the ghost and the prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat," is how lyric writer Howard Dietz put it. The story can catch you up. Shakespeare's words aren't bad, either.
What do I like about the movie? First, Olivier's ruthless approach. He believed people should remember that Shakespeare wrote for the stinking, scratching, fornicating masses (and, of course, to curry favor with the Tudors). The groundlings might appreciate a good weeper tragedy, but if they didn't come to fill the standing area and pay the entrance fee, William Shakespeare wouldn't have much of a career as a playwright. Olivier edits, cuts and rearranges the text because he's taking a centuries-old stage play and turning it into a strongly-paced, dramatic...movie. There's no time or room for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I" gets the heave-ho, among other soliloquies. The result is a movie which is tightly focused on the story and on Hamlet's conflicted character.
Second, Olivier's version of Hamlet the man. This prince of Denmark may be introspective, suspicious and more than a little self-centered, but when the times call for it, Hamlet is a man of action. The closing sword fight is a lengthy and brutal fight to the death. You'll want to take a step back and watch again when Olivier leaps from a parapet straight onto Claudius, crashes with him onto the stone floor, then takes his sword and thrusts deep into Claudius' chest over and over again. This is Olivier's Hamlet, not Shakespeare's stage directions. The groundlings would have loved it.
Third, the other actors, especially Basil Sydney as Claudius and Jean Simmons as Ophelia. Simmons was 18 when she made the movie. She'd already had major parts in films such as Great Expectations and Black Narcissus, but this was the first major Shakespearean role she'd ever played. Her Ophelia is so innocent and vulnerable it almost skewers the film; as it is, however, it underlines that Hamlet is not simply a man torn by grief and revenge. There is something more twisted going on within him. Sydney does a wonderful job as the King, Hamlet's stepfather and the lustful husband to Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. When Gertrude gives Hamlet a goodnight kiss, it is easy to assume that something erotic, something other than motherly love, is at play in the relationship between Gertrude and Hamlet. Sydney's Claudius is so pleased with being king, so eager to bed Gertrude at any opportunity that it's possible to almost like the man. He may be suspicious of Gertrude's love of her son, but he just doesn't want to know too much. Sydney makes Claudius' faults of ambition and lust easy to understand.
Fourth, the look of the film. Olivier has created a black-and-white vision of austere camera angles, with heavy stone stairways and battlements, fog and shadows, great dining halls that are damp and chilly. His Hamlet is also startling...blond, heavy lidded, too able to smile coldly. Yet when Hamlet's death finally comes, after revenge, betrayal and having followed his destiny, it causes an uneasy and deep feeling of retribution for his flaws. It was a sad, almost pointless loss. Olivier stages a flamboyant death for his Hamlet, but one which underlines all this.
Countless high school students have giggled over "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest." They might not this time.
A great movie...exciting, tragic, engrossing...but most of all, cinematic A great movie...exciting, tragic, engrossing...but most of all, cinematic A great movie...exciting, tragic, engrossing...but most of all, cinematic

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Hamlet (1948)
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