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Ring a Ding Ding

Hamlet (1948)

     In making Hamlet, Laurence Olivier was credited with, more than anyone else, introducing Shakespeare to the mass public at the time, and rightfully so. Not only does Olivier star in this film adaptation of a brooding young man attempting to prove his uncle murdered his father in pursuit of the throne of Denmark, but he directed, produced, and co-wrote the screenplay. I typically refer to this as “going Orson Welles” because of that actor’s similar control of multiple aspects of his Hollywood debut, Citizen Kane.

     This version of Hamlet, although two and a half hours long, drastically cuts down on the four-hour play by eliminating multiple soliloquies and characters. What we’re left with is a very compact two-hour drama that is both visually stunning and dramatically over the moon.

     The black and white picture grabbed me most with its traveling long takes that move seamlessly through the narrow halls and arched stone doorways of the castle. The picture both opens and closes with this cinematographic device. Equally compelling are the instances when the spectre of Hamlet’s father visits the various characters in foggy low-lit nights. Not only is the ghost eerie in appearance and voice, but the technique used to warn the viewer that something strange is occurring is also worthy of note. A simultaneous sound and camera-movement “heartbeat” blurs the viewers perception of the living characters just as they realize they are not alone.

     The Shakespearean language can be understandably off-putting to some, but the actors in this Hamlet, especially Olivier, speak it as though it were second nature. Whereas a mediocre actor could easily kill a Shakespearian story with poor delivery of the script, Olivier triumphs and overwhelms the audience with his superb portrayal of young Hamlet. Jean Simmons joins the cast as Ophelia, giving a commendable performance as a young woman consumed by mania. My complaint about this film is a poor establishment of any romantic connection between Hamlet and Ophelia. When Hamlet returns at the end of the film to stumble upon Ophelia’s funeral, he declares that he loved the woman, while I ponder “since when?”

     I am generally not a huge fan of Shakespeare and even refuse to have anything to do with Romeo and Juliet (it is way too depressing), so I’m not one to jump on the opportunity to sit through 2.5 hours of it. Hamlet, however, won Best Picture for 1948, so it was necessary to check off my list. Ultimately, I’m glad for the decision; however, I will refrain from giving Hamlet a Wowza!  review because it was a long sit and I found myself easily distracted.

Source: Robert Osborne


4 Responses

  1. Ah, perhaps your inability to appreciate the romance between H and O is because of the shortened version of the play?? However, I will say that I read this play closely in high school and it is one of my faves! But I will confess that I do not recall the love between the two being strongly portrayed even with such a close reading, so I would need to re-read to see if I can be convinced otherwise.

    Shakespeare is not an easy read; but when one can spend some time to feel more comfortable with the language so that is feels more familiar as Olivier was able to impart to us in this film, then I think you and others would find his words so worthy of pursuing. They can be as enriching as a sunrise over water or a sunset in the mountains. Hope sometime you will have a desire and time to study his works so that you can more readily know this for yourself. His way with language is unsurpassed or so it has been said. 🙂

  2. Some folk say that the lack of Hamlet’s ability to show affection for Ophelia is further evidence of his melancholy (read depression) having taken control of his soul, isolating him and costing him everything. Great, great film.

  3. One more thought: Although I have grown to detest Mel Gibson, he did a similarly good job with his Hamlet.

  4. I love this movie – I felt it does give a feeling of the past between Hamlet and Ophelia, but for me the lack of romance, and the shock at Hamlet suddenly announcing that he loved her, after she is dead, are all there in the play. Enjoyed your review and totally agree about the stunning visual imagery and those amazing long takes.

    On Romeo and Juliet, if you can be tempted, you might like to try the version with Norma Shearer as Juliet and Leslie Howard as Romeo – I know they are much too old but it is still a sumptuous production and John Barrymore, my current obsession, is great as Mercutio, in what was sadly the only full Shakespearean role he ever filmed.

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