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Film Review: Hamlet (1948)
In 1948, Laurence Olivier released his version of Hamlet, adapted from the Shakespeare play of the same name. The first sound film of the play in English and the first British film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it starred Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Stanley Holloway, Felix Aylmer, Terence Morgan and Norman Wooland. Grossing $3.25 million at the box office, the film also won the Academy Awards for Best Actor, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White, and Best Costume Design, Black and White, as well as the BAFTA Award for Best Film from Any Source and the Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture – Foreign and Best Actor.
Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, receives evidence that his uncle Claudius murdered the king to seize power and enacts revenge by feigning insanity. However, it soon becomes unclear whether he is only acting or is actually insane.
Despite being one of the most well-known stories written by Shakespeare and performed many times on stage and screen, this version of Hamlet is quite mediocre. However, upon release of the film and for quite some time after, Olivier’s version of Hamlet was considered the authoritative film adaptation of the story. That makes sense because the technical aspect of the film, namely its cinematography makes it an interesting watch. A notable example of this is all the framing at the very end as well as the procession carrying Hamlet’s body up the tower. The latter portion is interesting to watch as it’s done showing silhouettes of the people moving the late prince’s body rather than a camera following the procession the whole way. There’s also the time when Hamlet is speaking to the ghostly appearance of his father. It’s shot and framed very well, especially in how it shows Hamlet’s reactions.
But despite the good cinematography, the acting is of varying quality throughout the film. While there are plenty of times that Olivier does well in his performance, mostly when he’s emotional and angry, there are quite a few other times when it seems like he’d rather be doing anything else. Take his soliloquies, where it could be a good time to throw in some tonal range. However, throughout them, it feels like he’s bored and just trying to do a monotone monologue. Then there’s Ophelia. Jean Simmons does quite a bit of overacting, especially when she’s throwing herself on the floor and crying. Maybe she’s making up for the underacting of Olivier.
The definitiveness of this adaptation of the play is mentioned above and while the cinematography speaks well of that description, the rendition is done a disservice in cutting out a good portion of the story. What made the play so interesting was how it combined a drama with political intrigue with oedipal tones where Hamlet is eerily fixated on his mother. However, where that was balanced in the original play, it’s unbalanced here as Olivier underemphasizes the political aspect in order to overemphasize how Hamlet feels about his mother. Further, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely removed from the story. (They truly are dead.) And with them went some opportunities for some well-done comedic moments.
Olivier had said that the reason for all the cuts was so it could work on screen and for time purposes. However, later adaptations not only included everything that Olivier had disposed of, but were shorter as well. So while, at the time, the lack of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the cut portion might not have been felt, the lack of presence of those elements seems glaring when so far removed from its 1948 release.
It’s easy to see why this won Best Picture as it was the first English sound film of the play. It really was the most notable adaptation that had been presented and it being the definitive adaptation was entirely justified. However, the sands of time and the adaptations that came after it make it so this film lacks in a number of ways.
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