The Good: Wonderful characters, Great acting, Decent (if simple) plot, Generally good use of medium
The Bad: Some very campy moments, No bonus features, Makes cuts
The Basics: To date, the only Shakespeare adaptation to win the Best Picture Oscar, Hamlet translates Shakespeare's masterwork adequately, if not purely.
It is hard to argue what is the best Shakespeare play, though in disagreements over which is the Bard's best tragedy, many fall with The Tragedy Of Hamlet. Shakespeare's Hamlet, though, is one of his longer plays and one of the more complex. As a result, unless one is making a very long film, Shakespeare purists are pretty much bound to be disappointed in the cinematic rendering of Hamlet. As well, because Shakespeare had to relay many off-stage events to viewers, there are elements of virtually all of his plays that do not translate as well to the cinematic medium. That said, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet is arguably one of the best cinematic renderings of the Bard's play made for the big screen.
It has been years since I last read Hamlet and the truncated nature of my Complete Shakespeare (reviewed here!) made it less-than-ideal for following along. As a result, tonight when I took in the film, I had the chance to simply enjoy Hamlet and while there were a few noticeable omissions, all of the essential elements were present and I remembered why I was such a fan of Shakespeare again! And while some might be intimidated by the language of Shakespeare, director Laurence Olivier did an excellent job of translating the play into a film and making Shakespeare's implied directions vivid and clear.
In Elsinore Castle in Denmark, King Claudius is consolidating his power and trying to bring cheer to his court, which has a notable dark cloud: Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark. Hamlet, in mourning for his father, is even more troubled to learn from his friend Horatio that an apparition has been appearing on Elsinore's battlements each night. Hamlet joins his friends for guard duty and sees the ghost of his dead father. His father informs him that it was Claudius (his brother) who killed him and he is now deeply disturbed over the fact that Claudius has married Gertrude, his wife.
This sets Hamlet off on a journey of revenge, but when faced with Claudius, he decides to not kill him outright. Instead, he feigns insanity and works to expose Claudius's evil deeds. He engineers a plan to expose Claudius, by having a play performed which illustrates how Claudius killed his brother. But just as Hamlet has his machinations, Claudius has his. He employs his aide, Polonius, to expose Hamlet's insanity as a fraud. To do that, Polonius is forced to use his daughter, Ophelia, as bait and see how Hamlet treats her. Unwilling to expose himself or his bigger plan, even to the woman he loves, Hamlet is compelled to play crazy to Ophelia . . . with disastrous results!
Hamlet in this cinematic rendering is a compelling character study of a man who does his best to gain revenge and justice, as opposed to doing nothing (which is what the initial voice-over indicates). In fact, the only moment of inaction in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet is when he has the opportunity to kill Claudius and he does not stab him in the back. In this cinematic rendering, Hamlet's actions do not seem like those of an impotent man, but rather one who is showing mercy. This is a decent interpretation and it works.
In this version of Hamlet, the viewer gets more than they could get out of the average theatrical production of the play. Olivier takes the time to show things that could not be easily shown on stage, like the killing of the King by Claudius. Similarly, Ophelia's tragic demise is shown with sets and a visual richness that could not be done in a stage production. Even so, there are some annoying conceits, like the "wavy air" effect that introduces both flashbacks and the moment of Hamlet's lightheadedness which begins his "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Visually, though, the movie makes sense for the most part and it looks good with the DVD transfer.
As for the cast in this production, Olivier takes some flack from Eileen Herlie's Gertrude being younger than Olivier (who plays Hamlet), but had I not read that in the DVD liner notes, I would not have noticed it. Instead, I was impressed by Jean Simmons as Ophelia and Felix Aylmer's Polonius. Aylmer is given a rather large role and it seems like Polonius has a bigger role in this production than in Shakespeare's play.
Much of the film, though, comes down to how credibly Laurence Olivier plays Hamlet and in this regard, Hamlet is a success. The classic lines like "Alas, poor Yorkic . . ." are delivered with a classic sense that is a bassline for all who follow. Olivier is classically trained and he speaks each line of the dead English dialect with a convincing and realistic presentation that makes Shakespeare's words resonate and seem both poetic and common. As well, Olivier has a great physical sense to him which makes things like the climactic battle seem like it is the same character who has been brooding through much of the rest of the film.
Also notable is the way that director Olivier illustrates such things as Hamlet's capture by pirates, which is often underrepresented on stage or in other cinematic renderings of Hamlet. Olivier, though, takes the time to make this a real event which has the appropriate sense of chance and menace to it. It also allows the director to get away with such things as omitting Rozencrantz and Guildenstern from the film. While much of the film is true to the original play, there are some elements which had to be omitted for the movie and Olivier makes decent choices in that regard.
On the Criterion Collection DVD, Hamlet arrives with no bonus features or a commentary track. Rather disappointingly, there is only an essay on Hamlet in the DVD's liner notes and those hoping for more bells and whistles will find this set lacking.
Still, the film itself is poetically and visually rich enough to recommend enthusiastically. Those looking for a good production from a great actor will find this fits the bill.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]
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© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.