Hamlet: Another Shakespeare Movie

Without a doubt, the most influential author or playwright in history is William Shakespeare. For a man that lived centuries ago, in a world entirely different from our own, Shakespeare, and his stories, have transcended life, time, and humanity for hundreds of years. 

I’m sure that for most people, myself included, Shakespeare was a torturous part of freshman English or dramatized on a junior high stage. Many a teenager got their first kiss during a stage performance of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare is so influential, in fact, that there is more than one Shakespeare story on this list of Best Picture winners. I don’t know why exactly, but his plays have staying power, something amazing about them that sticks in our minds even as the modern world has changed so much since Shakespeare. In short, his influence has lasted centuries’ worth of change and upheaval. This is a very rare blessing in storytelling. 

It should come as no surprise then that many, many of history’s great actors got their start performing Shakespeare. His works, understandably, may hold a special place in many Hollywood careers. As such, numerous interpretations of his work exist. Any time editorial decisions are made, that can lead to criticisms from various “Shakespeare purists.” I am not one of those. 

Laurence Olivier directed and starred in this week’s film, Hamlet, his very personal and abstract take on one of the most famous of Shakespeare plays. The 1948 adaptation has come under fire over the years for cutting nearly half of the dialogue and excluding some major characters.  That is, however, not to say that Hamlet is a bad film. On the contrary, Hamlet is actually a very good film, one that showcases Olivier’s talent for both acting and directing. It is an epic tragedy that hangs its hat on a dynamite performance, plus a simple and elegant execution. 

Now for the rest of the movie.

Plot and Writing

The film begins just after the death of King Hamlet from poisoning. The late king’s wife Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) is marrying her husband’s brother and new king Claudius (Basil Sydney). This doesn’t sit well with the late king’s son, Prince Hamlet (Olivier). The night of the wedding, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father, who explains that he was murdered and that his brother was behind it. 

In order to test the new king’s conscience, Hamlet tries to convince people that he is mad by several means, including rejecting the love of Ophelia (Jean Simmons), staging a play to reenact the king’s death (which angers Claudius), and even killing Ophelia’s father Polonius. The ruse works and Hamlet is banished to England. Before he can get there, Hamlet’s ship is attacked by pirates and he’s sent home to reckon with the truth of his father’s death. 

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My fiance has an English degree, and it seems to be a law that holders of English degrees must have volumes of Shakespeare in their personal collections. Needless to say, she knows her Shakespeare. I do not. Therefore, I was surprised when she told me how much of the play was cut from this movie. In fact, cutting out the fat makes this movie better. 

It’s my understanding that, in general, Olivier’s version hits all the major points and follows the story well. At the end of the day, the goal is a well-told and coherent story and that’s what this film is. 

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On the writing side, Bill Shakespeare’s play is poetic, funny at times, and superb. There’s not much else to say about it. 1. 1. 

Set Design

Hamlet comes to us during the era of large boxy sets in studios. But rather than shooting in Los Angeles, Hamlet was shot entirely in a studio in England. In fact, it was the first British film to win Best Picture. As with other films, the set is boxy, but this one is very simple, yet very large. 

Hamlet’s set design, which won the Oscar for Set Design and Costume Design, really shines with the minimalist approach that the movie takes. During the film’s most emotional moments, the atmosphere onscreen is just a black wall with some fog. The set is wholly subtracted from the film and in this case, it works. While I heaped glowing praise upon Parasite for its set full of symbolism, and I’ll give the same praise to Hamlet due to its abstraction. 

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As an aside, watch out for Hamlet’s hair in the film. As my fiance pointed out, Laurence Olivier’s is “hair without body.” I won’t take points away for this, but you’ve been warned. 1. 

Sound

William Walton earned a Best Score nomination in 1948 for his work on Hamlet. In general, the score is between too little and too much, giving us the perfect balance of the film’s tone as well as lending the appropriate gravity befitting a great Shakespeare tragedy. I have no complaints. 1. 

Cinematography

The Director of Photography for Hamlet was Desmond Dickinson. This was a film that reminded me of why I love black and white movies. 

First, there is the aforementioned set. Hamlet dances with the abstract, giving us hyper-stylized shots that melted the eyeballs out of my head. 

Because of these shots, with only the actors in the shot against a simple black background, help the film to feel more like an in-theatre show than other films from the same era. 

Dickinson uses very long shots to hold our attention to the screen. One shot in particular, during the scene where the theatre troupe reenacts King Hamlet’s death. The shot never cuts, but instead uses motion to change the subject matter. The whole shot is nearly four minutes. 

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Finally, I have to pay special mind to the special effects. Modern effects are easy to identify their process; they’re made with computers. But effects from 1948 are trickier and my modern brain can’t comprehend how the effects are done. I have no clue how they made King Hamlet’s ghost, but it is spot on. The thing is creepy beyond belief. 1. 

Acting

The last time we saw Laurence Olivier was way back when I reviewed Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film Rebecca. Playing the serious, intense, and mysterious Maxim De Winter, it was clear that Olivier was the only man that could have played that part. This was evident after I read the book (which I highly recommend). 

Therefore, when this film came up on my list, I was very excited to watch it. This role as Hamlet was not similar to Maxim De Winter. The two are opposites in many ways, and it only demonstrates Olivier’s immense talent. 

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Whereas De Winter is quiet, shrewd, and calculating, Hamlet is a spoiled teenager, one who makes impulsive decisions with little regard for the feelings of others, particularly Ophelia. 

I love Laurence Olivier and his Best Actor win for Hamlet is more than deserved. However, it is a testament to not only his talent but to the nature of Hamlet himself. I have so much respect for Olivier, but I wanted to punch him in the face for 154 minutes. 

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Throughout the film, Hamlet runs the whole gamut of emotions. His life changes when his father dies and is irrevocably altered when said father’s spirit visits him. Say what you will about Hamlet, he is a driven man who knows, in general, what he wants. 1. 

Directing

For Laurence Olivier, Hamlet was the second of three Shakespeare films that he directed and starred in. The film is sandwiched by Henry V in 1944 and Richard III in 1955. Olivier was initially a stage actor so it makes sense that he’d gravitate to Shakespeare films. His body of work also includes other literary classics like Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and King Lear.

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For me, there are really two things that stand out about this film in my mind. The first is the interpretation. Obviously, Shakespeare has been around for centuries and I doubt that any two performances have been the same. That being said, it seemed like Olivier’s goal with this film was to make it as accurate as possible. He didn’t try to apply modern life or modern problems to Hamlet. He lets the play grace the screen in an original format, approaching the story with almost a Puritan bent, pouring his heart into what he believes the play should have been like. I’m always open to new interpretations, Olivier nails Hamlet and I have a deep respect for that. He’s able to give us a film that feels like a play, but without making it cheesy. That’s a tough balancing act. 

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Secondly, Olivier excels at the actual building of the film. Normally, I’ll talk about this in the set, but I’ll do it here too. But Olivier has a clear abstract and artistic vision about what Hamlet’s world was going to look like. To dabble in the abstract is easy; to make a living off it is hard. It’s obvious that not only was this adaptation of Hamlet came from a highly organized mind, and an exceptionally creative one, too. This fact alone is worth the point I’ll give it, but Hamlet is a great work because of all its pieces, both physical and otherwise. 1. 

Bonus Points

None. 

Final Score: 7/10

Oscar Facts

Hamlet won the 21st Academy Award for Best Picture on March 24, 1949, at The Academy Theatre in Los Angeles. It beat out Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre for Best Picture. The award was presented by Ethel Barrymore and accepted by producer, director, and star Laurence Olivier. Hamlet is one of the few films to win Best Picture without a writing nomination. In total, Hamlet won four awards, the most of the night, while Johnny Belinda received 12 nominations. 

Other winners included John Huston for Best Director, Jane Wyman for Best Actress, Walter Huston for Best Supporting Actor, and Claire Trevor for Best Supporting Actress. Robert Montgomery hosted the ceremony. 

Next Up

Next week, I’ll review 1980’s Ordinary People. After that it’s Oliver!, Tom Jones, All the King’s Men, Cimarron, Patton, and Midnight Cowboy.

Final Thoughts

I don’t normally comment on things happening outside of the movie world, but right now I feel like I have to. A pandemic, economic collapse, racial tensions, hyperpolarization, among other things, seemed to have come out into the open recently. I believe that America is having a moment. What we call that moment, where it will go, and how it’ll end will only be determined after we’re done with it.

I know for a large number of folks, the world seems to be coming apart at the seams. I’ll never be racially profiled, or the target of a hate crime, I still have my job, and, so far, I haven’t gotten sick. Yet, this time has kept me up at night, made me a little edgier with those I love, and has filled me some real dread. I can’t speak for you, but the way I see it, we’re all in this thing together.

Whatever your situation is, I know there is little I can do or say to make you feel better. I don’t even know how to make myself feel better sometimes. All I can say is that we should be kind to every person because every person has their own battles, their own demons they’re dealing with.

There are many ways that we can cope with the world around us, to help us find peace. One of the most powerful for me, at least, is music. I’ve been working from home for some time now and so I’ve been able to turn up the tunes while I work in ways that I never thought possible before. The piece that I’ve fallen the most in love with has been Beethoven’s 9th Symphony or the “Ode to Joy.”

Composed between 1822 and 1824, Beethoven was completely deaf when it was finished. The premiere of the piece was in May 1824 in Vienna. With his first onstage appearance in more than a decade, Beethoven co-conducted the piece with Michael Umlauf. When the symphony was done, Beethoven was still several measures behind and contralto Caroline Unger turned Beethoven around to face the rapturous applause. He received five standing ovations.

This particular version comes to us via the Oslo Philharmonic. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is often cited as being one of the greatest musical pieces ever composed and near-universal acclaim. It happens to be my favorite piece too. The Olso Philharmonic delivers in this rendition with flawless execution, masterful directing, injecting incredible life into the piece. The fourth movement, the most popular and my favorite, begins at about the 43:52 mark of the below video, but I highly encourage you to listen to the entire piece. Turn it on while you’re cooking dinner, balancing the checkbook, on the way to work, or if you need a moment of peace.

Coincidentally, Laci and I had tickets to see this piece, but that show was canceled due to COVID-19. Therefore, it’s still on my bucket list to see.

Anyway, I hope Beethoven’s 9th gives you some peace, a moment of grounding, and strength to carry on to whatever the future may bring.

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