21 Laurence Olivier

Hamlet played by Laurence Olivier.
Directed by Laurence Olivier.

Olivier’s Hamlet is one of those films which is impossible to approach without a certain level of trepidation, which accounts for why it has taken until now for me to do such an approach (it took this week’s competition to give me the relevant nudge). Like Kean, Kemble, Irving and Gielgud before him and Jacobi, Branagh and (it looks like) Tennant since, his performance is spoken of in hushed tones, synonymous with the role to the point that for a good while, the image people had fixed in their mind of what Hamlet is like, what he is about, was of Olivier. In almost all of the documentaries I’ve seen about Shakespeare and this play in particular, there has been a shot either of the actor looking over a cliff or grasping Yorrik’s skull. The film won Best Picture at the 1948 Academy Awards, with Olivier picking up best actor and nomination as best director (four wins in all with three other nominations).

Few films come with this baggage, let alone a film of Hamlet. Yet, once the credits had rolled and Olivier’s lens swept towards Elsinore’s battlements all of that fell away, and as is usual I found myself thrown back into the walls of the castle and the unfolding text. Unlike Henry V, which underscores its artifice at every stage, Olivier immediately plunges the viewer into a world pitched somewhere between horror and film noir as smoke and shadows fill the frame and old Hamlet descends, totally lacking in humanity, his entrance signalled by the bending of the image as though the apparition only exists because it has found a way to pierce the mind of Horatio and the guards. It’s shocking, scary and totally unlike the impression I'd previous had of the film, of a rather stately, reverential run through of the play. Olivier means to scare the Dickens out of you. And he does. Considering this was the first sound version of the play in the English language, the actor/director does not simply deliver filmed theatre, but a totally cinematic experience.

Eight years out from Citizen Kane and Welles’s influence can already be seen as cinematographer Desmond Dickens treats Elsinore like Xanadu, his use of deep focus transforming the castle into a cavernous, confusing edifice with geography that fractures and bends seemingly depending on Hamlet’s mental state. The camera is forever moving, throughout room, down hallways, up stairwells often in the middle of scenes in an effort to disorientate the viewer, coupled with an editing style that seems totally modern only rarely resting. Late in the film, as Jean Simmons’s post-breakdown Ophelia prowls about the castle, the camera tracks her from behind and we hear the scene in which Claudius spins Polonius’s death to Laertes echo about even before she’s entered the chamber, then continuing as she leaves again towards her death. About the only time Olivier comes unstuck is when he cuts away from performance to show the action which is being reported. So we see Hamlet’s uncharacteristic visit Ophelia as she describes the moment, when his absence from our eyes should be underscoring the mystery of his mental state.

On a textual level one of the big headlines (if you have headlines regarding a sixty year old film) is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren't just dead, they're cut altogether, the fishmonger and remembrances scenes shifted next to each other to demonstrate the testing of Hamlet’s madness. All of the politics is removed in fact, save a mention of Fortinbras in the gravedigger scene. This is a domestic Hamlet through and through, a battle of wills between the young prince and his father’s usurper, which does of course mean Polonius really is a “prattling naïve” (and all the more sympathetic for it) but also allows Olivier to glimpse deeply into the marriage of the new king and his queen. From the mousetrap onwards, Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude knows full well what her second husband did and what he’s capable of, the love drained from her eyes, her own sanity drifting until finally, during the duel, she drinks the pearled poisoned wine, knowing the effect it’ll have on her but wanting out of the marriage through any means available. All of that is reflected in Herlie’s sublime performance as in close up we watch her eyes fixed on the goblet and her realisation of the oblivion it will provide.

There’s no doubt that Olivier’s Hamlet is a great performance, with the actor completely aware of when he needs to show the emotion and when he should simply let the other actors and the rest of the film carry on about him. His first appearance, in which he’s clearly been in the scene all along but we simply haven’t noticed him demonstrates the shadowy figure he’s become since his father’s death. He’s also unafraid to take advantage of the comedy in the play, especially as he and Horatio must deal with first the gravedigger then the Osric. My impression is that in this interpretation, Hamlet begins by feigning madness, which tips him over the edge (almost literally in the case of “To Be or Not To Be”) and then he realises what has happened and his sanity returns by the climax. As he says in voice over at the start: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” and ironically when he finally does decide on a plan and carries it through it’s too late to save his own life. Some have said he was far too old for the role by then (and indeed the actress playing Hamlet’s mother is a full decade younger than her son), but for me on this occasion it’s the quality of the interpretation which is most important.

Of the rest of the cast, Jean Simmons’s poppet like Ophelia isn’t entirely convincing and the opening does drag terribly during her scene with Terrance Morgan’s stodgy Laertes, their clipped RP accents and mannered performance suggesting at no point that they are siblings. If I was a child watching Hamlet for the first time, my heart would sink if faced by this. Still, Basil Syndey’s Claudius is a brooding villain and looks especially creepy next to Herlie’s youthful Gertrude. The other interest is amongst the supporting cast, which is chock full of character actors who would go on to be stars in their own right: Peter Cushing’s effeminate Osric, Stanley Holloway’s Grave Digger, Patrick Troughton’s Player King, Anthony Quayle’s Marcellus and uncredited extras include Christopher Lee, Desmond Llewelyn and Patrick Macnee. In the 1990s, a fantasy convention would kill for this line-up, yet there they all are carrying spears in court or cutlasses during the pirate scene were Olivier allows himself a brief moment of swashbuckling in the flashback.

[Don't forget, the competition to win this on blu-ray along with Henry V courtesy of ITV DVD is still open. You can enter here.]

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