Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

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 andenjoyed 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.

Laurence Olivier and Eileen Herlie as Hamlet and Gertrude

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.

Jean Simmons as Ophelia

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.

Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons

All the pictures in this posting are gratefully taken from the Dr Macro site.

13 thoughts on “Hamlet (1948)

  1. Excellent review Judy! Coincidently I was at one of the local libraries last week and saw the Criterion DVD and came close to borrowing it but went for The Treasure of Sierra Madre instead. Since both films were released the same year and Olivier won the Oscar some commenter’s have mentioned the film in looking at my review.

    BTW – Bogart was not even nominated that year. I was incorrect in writing that and have since modified my review.


    • Thanks, John – it’s quite strange to realise this was released the same year as ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’, since they are so different – I would say this production of ‘Hamlet’ has dated a lot more in terms of its style, and I feel ‘Treasure’ should probably have had the Oscar, but both films are great in their own ways. It’s quite surprising to realise that Bogart didn’t even get a nomination for that role!


  2. Judy, a concise and nicely written post that seems to cover all the important points. After hearing so much about this, I finally was able to see it a while ago, and I was most impressed. I can’t claim to be as familiar with the play as you, only having read it in high school, but as a film, I found this excellent and even better than “Henry V” and “Richard III,” which I saw a little while afterward. (Also, of course, Olivier’s somewhat peculiar “Othello,” which I saw many years ago, although the young Maggie Smith was for me as memorable a Desdemona as Simmons was as Ophelia here). I also thought the b&w photography served the film well, giving it a rather noir look that was all the rage at the time but seems to have been a good choice for this material. The minimalist, almost expressionist-looking sets, somewhere between stage sets and realistic movie sets, looked especially good filmed this way and gave the material a modernistic look. I also loved Simmons (why oh why did she not become the big star she deserved to be?) and Aylmer but also the great Stanley Holloway in his memorable cameo as the gravedigger.


    • Thank you very much, R,D., I appreciate you visiting and commenting. I especially like your point about the noir/minimalist feeling of the sets. I must admit I haven’t seen Olivier’s ‘Othello’ – I have seen his ‘Henry V’ and ‘Richard III’, though, and agree with you that both are excellent but his ‘Hamlet’ even better.

      I was actually just thinking about Olivier’s version of ‘Richard III’ after seeing the one speech from Henry VI part III which was all that John Barrymore ever filmed as the character (just editing this reply because it’s been pointed out to me that the speech is not from Richard III as I had thought!) There is also a tiny “screen test” of Barrymore as Hamlet and both are such tantalising glimpses of great films which were never made. I’m glad that we do have Olivier’s Shakespearean films – and Barrymore as Mercutio in ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

      I agree with you that Stanley Holloway is wonderful as the gravedigger.


  3. Judy: You make many excellent points here, but the bottom line is that this remains by and large an excellent Shakespearean adaptation, even if it falls short of Olivier’s work in RICHARD III and HENRY V within the pantheon. Yes, I do agree that Sir Lawrence was too old for the role, but you rightly note that the filming in monochrome helped to mitigate this potential crippling flaw. Likewise the use of voiceover in this one instance works quite well, though you can’t be faulted for favoring direct speech. Still there is a brooding lyricism in the style opted for, and Olivier is a commanding presence, even with Ms. Simmons delivering the goods as Ophelia. The supporting cast was impressive, and I bet some don’t realize that Peter Cushing played Osric.

    There’s little question that Desmond Dickinson’s textured cinematography captures the melencholic mood of the play, and though the compromising of the text is unfortunate, it helps to define this work as a film, rather than a film of a play. Eyebrows were raised in 1948 when it captured the Best Picture Oscar over John Huston’s THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, but by any barometer of measurement it’s still one of that year’s most extraordinary cinematic achievements.

    As always you’ve penned an authoritative and perceptive essay.


    • Thanks very much for your thoughts, Sam – and first of all, yes the camerawork is wonderful and I should have mentioned the cinematographer – thanks for filling in that gap! “Brooding lyricism” is a great description of the film’s mood – I’ve also just watched Welles’ ‘Macbeth’ from the same year (was there something in the air in 1948 that made film-makers turn to Shakespeare?) and, although I gather the two films are generally thought to be a long way apart, I was struck by the similarity in the moody, noirish feel of the cinematography – also by the fact that Welles takes the same course as Olivier in using voiceover for the soliloquies, presumably with both of them arriving at this independently.
      Jumping back to ‘Hamlet’, I’ll admit that I actually didn’t notice Peter Cushing was the actor playing Osric at first, until I looked at the cast list! Again, many thanks, Sam.


  4. I recently watched and reviewed this one. I’m not a big Shakespear fan but I still found this one very compelling. I hadn’t thought about the soliloquies as voiceover much, but they are a bit strange. I greatly enjoy this being in black and white–it made for several creepy moments and just artful cinematography.
    If you’re interested, my ramblings are here: http://macguffinmovies.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/hamlet/


    • Thanks very much for the link to your site, I have just read your comments on ‘Hamlet’ and will enjoy exploring your blog further. I do agree that cinematography is wonderful and atmospheric. Interesting to see that in your review you make a comparison with Orson Welles – I’ve just been watching his ‘Chimes at Midnight’, which brings together scenes from Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays, and is a very entertaining film.


  5. Great blogging for classic movies Judy. TBH I rarely watch old films and have seen the latest release of Oliver twist and David Copper Field..It’s nice to see a lot of people still admire the old classics and the style..have to try watching some from your blog when I can.


    • Thank you very much for the nice comment. I do watch recent movies too but am increasingly drawn by the oldies – hope you enjoy them if you give them a try.


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