Hamlet (1948) [DVD]
Screenplay : Alan Dent (based on the play by William Shakespeare)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1948
Stars : Laurence Olivier (Hamlet), Eileen Herlie (Queen Gertrude), Basil Sydney (King Claudius), Jean Simmons (Ophelia), Norman Wooland (Horatio), Felix Aylmer (Polonius), Terence Morgan (Laertes)
Many film versions of Shakespeare's plays had been brought to the screen before Laurence Olivier's adapted "Hamlet" in 1948. However, with the possible exception of Olivier's own patriotic screen version of "Henry V" in 1944, none had ever been so magnificently rendered. As Bosley Crowther gushed in "The New York Times" when it premiered in the U.S., "the filmed "Hamlet" of Laurence Olivier gives absolute proof that [Shakespeare's] classics are magnificently suited to the screen."
In the more than 50 years since Olivier's film, there have been several other filmed versions of "Hamlet." These include Tony Richard's failed 1969 version with Nicol Williamson in the title role, Franco Zeferelli's robust, earthy version in 1990 with Mel Gibson, and Kenneth Branagh's stunning 1996 adaptation, which boldly used the Bard's entire text, resulting in a four-hour film. Olivier's screenwriter, Alan Dent, shocked quite a few Shakespeare enthusiasts with the manner in which he edited the text in order to bring the running time down to two and a half hours.
This involved eliminating substantial supporting characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who would be afforded their own play many years later by Tom Stoppard), as well as turning the most famous soliloquies, including "To be or not to be," into interior monologues. This last choice was one of the most controversial, as many griped that reducing the soliloquies to a hushed voice-over robbed them of their power. While some of the power is possibly lost in not seeing Hamlet actually speaking the words, the choice of turning these speeches into interior monologues is a purely cinematic move in that it allows Olivier to do on screen what could not be done on the stage. It is a way of asserting that this version of "Hamlet" is a film, not a filmed play.
Purists may be upset nonetheless, but Olivier's resulting film is a bold, well-paced tragedy that helped expand audience notions of what Shakespeare on screen could be like. Using moody, almost expressionistic black-and-white photography and large, empty, rough-hewn sets in Elsinore, Denmark, Olivier gives the film a dark atmosphere and a foreboding tone. This is immediately established in the opening scene, which shows a castle perched on the edge of a sea-side cliff, with the ocean crashing at the bottom of the screen and thick mist swirling the air.
Olivier himself portrayed Hamlet, the anguished Danish prince who is asked by his father's ghost to seek revenge on the man who murdered him, his brother Claudius (Basil Sydney), who has since married his wife, Gertrude (Eileen Herl), and assumed the throne. Olivier's Hamlet is a strong, intense young man who takes on his vengeful mission with intensity and desire. One of the trappings in playing Hamlet is the interpretation of him as an overly melancholy drip. Olivier does quite the opposite; with his platinum-dyed hair and unwavering gaze, he is an active Hamlet who is destroyed in the end simply because the forces mounted against him were more than one man could take.
As a director, Olivier wisely keeps the narrative moving steadily forward. The film does not feel rushed, but it doesn't drag, either. Part of the momentum is achieved in Olivier's use of the camera, which is rarely still; rather, it glides almost constantly, sometimes in 360-degree circles (this is used to great effect during the play-within-the-play sequence, when Claudius is faced with his awful deed being re-enacted onstage). Olivier sometimes becomes overly fond of his camera movements, though, which results in his drawing too much attention to them. This is particularly noticeable in the scene in which Claudius and Laertes (Terence Morgan) plot Hamlet's demise. Olivier's camera starts on them close, and then slowly pulls back as they begin to plot. But, then, the camera cuts back into a medium close-up, and begins the same movement all over again. Once was good, but twice is too much.
These are, of course, small quibbles in a film that is an overall triumph. Olivier was given grand accolades by most critics when the film was released, and despite winning four Academy Awards, including Best Picture (the first ever for a foreign film), it did not do particularly well at the box office. Perhaps Olivier's stark approach to the material was too dark for audiences who were expecting another Technicolor epic in the vein of "Henry V." Nevertheless, Olivier's version of "Hamlet" was and still is one of the preeminent screen adaptations of Shakespeare, and it is the bar by which all future film versions of "Hamlet" will always be judged.
|Hamlet: Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|The image on this DVD is magnificent. Despite some speckling and a minor amount of negative damage that crops up from time to time, the overall picture, which was transferred from a clean 35-mm duplicate negative, is stunning. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson's beautiful black-and-white photography is expertly rendered, with strong contrast, solid black levels, and an extraordinarily high level of detail (you can see the pores in Olivier's face, even in medium close-ups). The image is sharp and well-defined, with no noticeable edge enhancement or digital artifacting. As mentioned earlier, there is some speckling from time to time, and at least one frame has a significant tear in the upper right hand corner. But, aside from that, this transfer is virtually flawless.|
|While good for its age, the audio quality is not nearly as strong as the image quality. Rendered in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, the soundtrack displays its age quite often in the form of a barely audible hiss. It is generally unnoticeable except when there is no dialogue. The musical score sounds generally good, although it becomes slightly unstable and harsh at the higher pitches. Still, the most important aspect of the soundtrack is the dialogue, which sound quite good throughout the film.|
|No supplements are included.|
©2000 James Kendrick