Friday, May 13, 2011

1948 - Hamlet

Matt's tip of the day: Don't ever get a bruised rib. It hurts to cough. It hurts to sneeze. It hurts to go from lying down to sitting up. It just hurts. And it's not really worth the three seconds of laughter that you might get from an audience who witness your pratfall.

Since rest is pretty much the only suggested remedy for a bruised rib, last night I rested as I watched the victor among 1948's Best Picture contenders...

Laurence Olivier
Laurence Olivier
(based on the play by William Shakespeare)
Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, Terence Morgan
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
4 wins, including Best Picture and Best Actor (Olivier)

Laurence Olivier's iconic adaptation of Shakespeare's most famous work, Hamlet centres on that angst-ridden prince of Denmark with the funny name. Hamlet (Olivier) is depressed. His father is dead, murdered by his uncle Claudius (Sydney) in order to take the throne. To make matters worse, Claudius, now the King, married Hamlet's grieving mother, Gertrude (Herlie). When a troop of travelling actors come to town, Hamlet has the ingenious idea of pushing Claudius' buttons by orchestrating a play that exactly mirrors the new King's murderous act. Meanwhile, the object of his affection, Ophelia (Simmons), is slowly going mad. And, like any good Shakespearean tragedy, by the story's conclusion, almost everyone is dead.

I still vividly remember the moment of clarity I experienced the first time I saw Olivier's masterpiece. It may well have been the first time I truly understood Hamlet, or possibly any of Shakespeare's plays. Olivier (along with his outstanding cast) is extremely adept at making accessible Shakespeare's poetically complicated language. Granted, in order to achieve simplicity, he had to excise a few characters along with a sizable chunk of the dialogue, but what remains is the essence of Hamlet's psychological drama.

As director, Olivier utilises his medium with ingenuity. Acknowledging that a screen adaptation can allow for presentation techniques not available to a stage production, the picture features several innovative elements. For instance, as the Ghost of Hamlet's father narrates the true details of his death, we are shown a re-enactment of the event. Also, some of Hamlet's intimate soliloquies are only heard through voice over, as if the audience is directly listening to his inner-most thoughts. This particularly seems like an appropriate manifestation of Shakespeare's intent, perfectly achieving that insight into the character's internal contemplations.

If unfamiliar with Shakespeare, you may be surprised as to how many Shakespearean phrases you already know. Hamlet, in particular, is incredibly quotable. I began to count all the well-known lines but quickly realised there are far too many. Not to mention the proverbs that Shakespeare coined - "brevity is the soul of wit," "the play's the thing," and "neither a borrower nor a lender be."

Adding to the film's comprehension are the superb performances by the cast. Directing himself to a Best Actor Oscar, Olivier (pictured, with Yorick) displays a natural intensity and commitment to the role of Hamlet. He also displays amazing proficiency with the sword during a very impressive duel with Terence Morgan as Laertes. Basil Sydney is brilliantly detestable as Claudius and Eileen Herlie's portrayal of the Queen is gentle and sorrowful. But the only other acting nomination went to Jean Simmons, recognised in the Supporting Actress category for her turn as the unbalanced Ophelia. As the Gravedigger, that's Stanley Holloway (a few years before he immortalised the role of Alfred Doolittle) delivering a witty performance. Delightful as Osric is Peter Cushing, perhaps better known from his Hammer Horror appearances, as well as Star Wars. And for Doctor Who fans, if Cushing's non-canonical portrayal of the Doctor isn't good enough, that's the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton as the Player King.


  1. I doesn't surprise me that a stage actor would appreciate the master of Shakespeare's interpretation of his most famous play.

    After checking My Fair Lady off the list of Best Picture winners I haven't seen, Hamlet came next. I finally watched it a couple of weeks ago. I did see Kenneth Branagh's complete version a few years ago). As spectacular as Branagh's 70mm color film was, I am drawn to those noirish B&W films of the forties. You can see that Olivier was influenced in a positive manner by the work on Citizen Kane, with its deep focus photography.

    As I mentioned some time ago, I wish I could say I had a better understanding of Shakespeare's prose. While I didn't have any trouble following the plot, I felt there was much that I missed.... and therein lies the rub. (Hey, I used a Shakespeare proverb!) It won't get any easier than listening to Olivier's magnificent vocal interpretation.

    As for the film, even with the cuts, it did seem longish and naturally quite theatrical often. The casting choices were rather interesting. I've seen films where a mother and son were played by actors much closer in age than should be (Angela Lansbury and Lawrence Harvey in The Manchurian Candidate, Jessie Royce Landis and Cary Grant in North by Northwest.) But Hamlet takes the cake (not a Shakespeare proverb) Olivier was actully 12 years OLDER than Eileen Herlie, who played his mother. In truth, it didn't seem that strange, and I guess it added to the oedipal subtext. According to IMDB, Peter Cushing's frequent co-star Christopher Lee is also in Hamlet as an uncredited spear carrier in his debut year in film.

    Hamlet was a surprise Best Picture winner, and the last one to win without receiving both screenplay and editing nominatons. It will be interesting to see how it makes out here.

  2. I actually didn't notice Eileen Herlie's youth until I read about it after I watched the film this time round. When I read that she was younger than Olivier, I thought someone must have got their dates mixed up or something. (Sorry, Eileen.)

    I saw Branagh's version only a short time after I originally saw Olivier's and loved it, too. Just how Olivier made Shakespeare contemporary for his time, I think Branagh has the same ability. I've never seen Ethan Hawke's Hamlet, though. Time to add it to my queue, methinks...