I’m not going to say a lot about this film, but, as part of my mini-Shakespeare season, just wanted briefly to record that I’ve re-watched the Olivier Hamlet and enjoyed it very much – it is much better than his first Shakespearean film role in As You Like It. The fact that he was director as well as the star makes a lot of difference.
One problem in looking back at this film now is that, as it was so influential, some of the decisions which Olivier made as director have now become things we take for granted, such as pointing up the Oedipal aspects of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude with the scene where he remonstrates with her on a bed – Kenneth S Rothwell’s book A History of Shakespeare on Screen points out that Olivier had recently played Oedipus on stage.
Another choice which has been also used by many other directors since is turning the soliloquies into voiceover rather than speaking them on film. I must say I slightly regret this – I know this helps to make the film feel a little less stagey and also makes the speeches seem more like Hamlet’s thoughts. But now that there is no chance of ever seeing Olivier on stage, I’d love to see him speaking the words rather than just hearing him. It’s also a shame that two of the soliloquies have been cut altogether to keep down the running time, together with the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras. (Rothwell points out that losing Fortinbras takes away some of the political dimension.)
At 40, Olivier was a little old for Hamlet (bizarrely, Eileen Herlie, who plays Gertrude, was only 29, 11 years younger than her screen son!). But in black and white he gets away with it – and the choice of monochrome also helps to give a starkness to the production, together with the open sets, and the sweeping tracking shots taking us from cliffs to the towers of Elsinore.
The whole production is dominated by Olivier’s intense and athletic performance, but Jean Simmons, who was only 18, is also excellent as Ophelia – this performance came a couple of years after she played the young Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations. When I see anyone else playing Ophelia I nearly always find myself remembering Simmons and comparing their performances – especially the scene where she hands out the flowers. Felix Aylmer’s performance as a magnificently pompous Polonius also sticks in my mind. All in all, I think this production still makes compelling viewing, and is interesting to come back to after I recently saw the recent David Tennant/Patrick Stewart version. I also still love the opening where Olivier says “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind”, although I know the adding in of this line is controversial – but just the dreamy way he speaks it in voiceover, with the pauses, is one of the great moments of the film for me.
All the pictures in this posting are gratefully taken from the Dr Macro site.