Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Monday, January 31, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #21: Hamlet (1948)

Director: Laurence Olivier
Starring: Laurence Olivier

Shakespeare is one the most famous and celebrated writers in the history of the English language and he created some of the most enduring and compelling characters ever written. His work has been adapted countless times on film and yet only one – Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet - has ever won the Oscar for Best Picture and only two others have ever been nominated (1944’s Henry V, also from Olivier, and 1953’s Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando). Made with a distinctly noirish sensibility, Hamlet easily transcends any obstacles that normally hinder stage to screen adaptations.

The story of Hamlet should be familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of English literature. Something is rotten in Denmark, where old King Hamlet has mysteriously died and his crown – not to mention his wife, Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) – have been claimed by his brother, Claudius (Basil Sydney). This does not sit well with Prince Hamlet (Olivier), particularly after he encounters his father’s ghost, who informs him that he was, in fact, murdered and by Claudius.

Not entirely trusting the word of an apparition, Hamlet decides to test Claudius and uses a troop of stage performances to ferret out the truth. The play they enact, called “The Murder of Gonzago,” is unbearable to Claudius, whose reaction confirms the truth in Hamlet’s eyes. Hamlet is now set to avenge his father but after accidentally killing Polonius (Felix Aylmer) he is deported to England. En route, his ship is attacked by pirates and he is returned to Denmark, where he learns that his beloved Ophelia (Jean Simmons) has gone mad and killed herself. Ophelia’s brother Laertes (Terence Morgan) challenges Hamlet to a duel and Claudius provides him with a poisoned blade. As an extra measure, Claudius also poisons a drink. Needless to say, this does not end well.

Olivier took on screenwriting duties in addition to directing and playing the lead and in adapting the play he cut out roughly half the dialogue and a few of the characters. This streamlined version drew criticism at the time of its release from Shakespearean purists, but the film still manages to capture the full scope of the play. It also avoids a problem that often plagues stage to screen adaptations, namely the issue of stageyness. Hamlet doesn’t have a great variety of sets but Olivier does keep the camera moving quite a bit and employs a lot of deep focus to give scenes a more multi-dimensional feel. We aren’t just watching the play; we’re thrust right into the action.

Desmond Dickinson’s cinematography (which, shockingly, did not receive an Oscar nomination) is positively sublime from first scene to last. The scene in which Hamlet encounters his father’s ghost is especially atmospheric, full of rolling mist and shadow. This is a very moody adaptation that uses all the elements in the production to complement Shakespeare’s words.

Olivier’s performance as Hamlet is note perfect, guiding an easy escalation from Hamlet’s early impotent sullenness to his later consuming desire for vengeance. This particular version really plays up the Oedipal elements of the story and Hamlet often seems more like a jealous lover than an angry son. This element is emphasized in several ways, from the displays of affection between mother and son to the costuming (there is one scene in which Gertrude, clad in a very low cut dress, leans over Hamlet and kisses him on the lips), but also through the casting. At the time of filming Olivier was 40 and Herlie was only 27 and as a result the kind of chemistry required between the characters feels natural rather than forced (although, of course, it’s still creepy).

In the decades since its release Hamlet seems to have fallen somewhat out of favour, but I found it thoroughly enjoyable. I’ve seen other film versions of the story but this one is easily my favourite (Kenneth Branaugh’s 1996 version comes a fairly close second). I just think that the blending of Shakespeare with the look and feel of noir cinema works extremely well and makes the story all the more effective.

No comments: