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Hamlet (1948)

  • Review: *** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Laurence Olivier, John Laurie, Esmond Knight, Anthony Quayle, Niall MacGinnis, Harcourt Williams, Patrick Troughton, Tony Traver, Peter Cushing, Stanley Holloway, Russell Thorndike, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, Terence Morgan, Jean Simmons
  • Director: Laurence Olivier
  • Screenplay: Laurence Olivier (Play: by William Shakespeare)
  • Length: 155 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Approved (PCA #12473)

Before Kenneth Branagh, there was Laurence Olivier. Olivierwas the embodiment of all things Shakespeare. When he decided to write, directand star in the bard’s famed play Hamlet,it was undoubtedly going to be a great screen success.

Many said that Olivier could speak the lines of Shakespeareas they were intended to be spoken. Seldom was that more evident than in hisproduction of Hamlet. The openingscenes feature the ghost of Hamlet’s father accusing the king Claudius (BasilSydney) of murdering him in order to ascend to the throne. As Hamlet strugglesto expose the murder of his father and seek revenge against the man who killedhim, he slowly descends into madness.

Hamlet isincredibly dry. We cannot fault Olivier for this. The production is tedious tosit through even when cut down to 155 minutes. The film does its best topresent the story as authentically as possible but fails to make the movieentertaining. In this type of setting and production, it’s entirely appropriatefor the dialogue to remain largely intact and for the filmmaker to avoidcompromising his love for the source material to make some garish spectacle.And the film certainly resonated with the Academy, taking home Oscars for BestActor and Best Picture along with two other awards.

One can’t sit down to a performance of Hamlet and expect to be filled with laughter like Shakespeare’scomedies. It is a drama of the most serious nature. Tragedies befall thecharacters with such regularity that it’s difficult to find something humorousin such circumstances. Thus, Olivier’s admirable production remains undeniablyslow.

Olivier’s performance as the bard is nothing short ofbrilliant. He embodies the role with such fervor that it is increasinglydifficult to separate the man from the role. In addition to his performance,his hand behind the camera is grasp tightly around the performers, elicitingconvincing renderings from each. Eschewing broad sets and dazzling locales,Olivier opts for a more stage-like atmosphere. Though many of the scenes feellike they could be taking place on location, it is quite apparent from thedrops and sparse décor that the film was entirely shot on a sound stage.

Laurence Olivier’sHamlet isn’t a film for every person. Lovers of the works of Shakespearewill certainly enjoy themselves as seldom is there such a stirring rendering ofone of his plays. Hamlet may bedifficult to watch from beginning to end without tiring, it is nonetheless acommendable film.