Hamlet (1948)

ImagePart of me wanted to see Hamlet. I like old productions (much more than new ones I might add), and all in all – it’s a fucking Hamlet – as classic as it gets. While I know my way around tons of pop-cultural references I still have to update my classical database. What can I say? I had a relatively normal childhood which meant Bruce Willis instead of Laurence Olivier. This other part of me was much saner and its influence managed to stop me. For a couple of months at least. That part knew what we would be getting ourselves into. Hell, old British picture meets almost unabridged Shakespeare. It could’ve happened in only one way. No surprises there. It happened just so.

Take any Shakespearean play that you want (take the one you have seen, it’ll be easier that way). Take high-school productions, take your average rural amateur production, take your high-end, posh happening with obligatory black ties stapled underneath actors themselves; disregard the post-modern or deconstructivist stuff and you’ll get the picture. This one I mean – the one that was awarded with Oscar sixtyish years ago. It’s Shakespeare by-the-book. Sure, actors are far better than your average high-schoolers, costumes are much more expensive and life-like, swordplay choreography is as professional as it could be in 1948, and so on. Still, if someone were to give an award for a lack of imagination this movie would be a serious contender. Just compare it with Hitchcock’s Rope (which was released in the same year).


I’m finding it difficult to even think about Olivier’s Hamlet as a movie. It reads and behaves as a filmed stage play. Theatre en masse. Sure, Desmond Dickinson did brilliant job with cinematography, guys in special effects knew what they we’re doing, Ophelia swooned beautifully and Hamlet showed restraint in waving his arms about (this has nothing to do with movies, it has to do with acting; still, I had to mention it), few camera rides accentuated some of the more important aspects of the text in question (like the one during the Ophelia’s burial) showing us stage from the perspective which would be impossible in a theatre but overall – direction was clueless if non-existent. It was clear, I’ll grant you that. Functional might be a more proper word, but that was all it was. In a “movie” ~150 minutes long Olivier decided not to use anything that this “mundane” medium could offer. Shakespeare itself should be enough (God forbid that someone would dare to edit the Bard), we want none of this plebeian bullshit and trickery.One can’t blame 40’s, nor can one blame style of the “old times”. It was a deliberate choice and it was a poor one.


Of a Hamlet itself I can’t say much more than it has already been said thousand times over. It’s a classic for a reason. However strong and powerful the core text might be, in this interpretation it still comes across as unwatchable. It was acted well but having camera film competent actors doesn’t spell moviemaking. It was something Olivier never understood quite properly. Hitchcock did. It didn’t help him with Oscars though. Sometimes you just can’t win.

Directed by Laurence Olivier
Produced by Laurence Olivier
Screenplay by Laurence Olivier
Based on Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Starring Laurence Olivier
Basil Sydney
Eileen Herlie
Jean Simmons
Stanley Holloway
Music by William Walton
Cinematography Desmond Dickinson
Editing by Helga Cranston
Studio Two Cities

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