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Hamlet (1948)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment

Main image of Hamlet (1948)
35mm, black and white, 142 mins
DirectorLaurence Olivier
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
ProducerLaurence Olivier
Text EditorAlan Dent
Original PlayWilliam Shakespeare
PhotographyDesmond Dickinson
MusicWilliam Walton

Cast: Laurence Olivier (Hamlet); Eileen Herlie (Gertrude); Basil Sydney (Claudius); Jean Simmons (Ophelia); Felix Aylmer (Polonius)

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Prince Hamlet of Denmark is told by his father's ghost that his uncle Claudius has murdered him and married his widow. Hamlet vows revenge and feigns madness, but this has disastrous consequences for his relationship with Ophelia, while his preference for talk and thought over action leads to fatal errors.

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Laurence Olivier's Hamlet was made four years after his rousingly patriotic Henry V (1944), and is a very different proposition. Unsurprisingly, given the tone and content of the play, the overall mood is that of brooding introspection - tellingly, in a phrase not in Shakespeare's original, Olivier opens by telling us that it is "the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind", foregrounding the film's central theme, a neat metaphor for the uncertainty of the immediate postwar years.

He also largely eliminates the play's political intrigue: Fortinbras is banished, and so too are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - the three characters most indelibly associated with the world outside Elsinore. These cuts focus attention on the play's central theme: the relationship between Hamlet, his lover Ophelia, mother Gertrude and stepfather Claudius.

Olivier was forty when he played the part, old by Hamlet standards, but a side-effect of this is to intensify the latent eroticism of the scenes with his mother, most notably following Polonius' murder, but also at the climax, when it's made clear that she knowingly drinks the poison to kill herself.

It seems clear that Hamlet is far more attracted to his mother than he is to Ophelia, whose distance from him is frequently exaggerated through wide-angle deep-focus photography - his frostiness towards her is palpable, and has led to accusations that Olivier's Hamlet is rather colder than Shakespeare intended.

Stylistically, Hamlet is quite different from Henry V. Shot in high-contrast black and white, it's not quite as overtly Expressionist as, for instance, Orson Welles' Macbeth (also 1948), but it's certainly a similarly claustrophobic, stifling experience, with none of the opening-out of its predecessor, or any continuation of Olivier's explorations of the contrast between film and theatrical performance.

Although almost entirely filmed in the studio (the major exception being Ophelia's drowning, inspired by Millais' Pre-Raphaelite painting), the crane-mounted camera is constantly on the move, constantly shifting our perception of the characters' relationship with each other in a way that would be impossible with a stage production.

The following year Hamlet became not just the first British but the first non-American film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, along with Best Actor (Olivier), Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. The ghost scene (5:21)
2. The fair Ophelia (3:54)
3. The closet scene (2:41)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Hamlet (1913)
Henry V (1944)
Richard III (1955)
Hamlet at Elsinore (1964)
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1980)
Beck, Reginald (1902-1992)
Cushing, Peter (1913-1994)
Del Giudice, Filippo (1892-1962)
Dickinson, Desmond (1903-1986)
Holloway, Stanley (1890-1982)
Knight, Esmond (1906-1987)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Llewelyn, Desmond (1914-1999)
Olivier, Laurence (1907-1989)
Simmons, Jean (1929-2010)
Walton, Sir William (1902-1983)
Two Cities Films
Laurence Olivier and Shakespeare
Hamlet On Screen