Combustible Celluloid
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With: Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Alan Mowbray, Sara Allgood, Gladys Cooper, Henry Wilcoxon, Heather Angel, Halliwell Hobbes, Gilbert Emery, Miles Mander, Ronald Sinclair, Luis Alberni, Norma Drury Boleslavsky, Olaf Hytten, Juliette Compton
Written by: Walter Reisch, R.C. Sherriff
Directed by: Alexander Korda
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 125
Date: 04/03/1941

That Hamilton Woman (1941)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lovers Come Back

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Directed by Alexander Korda, That Hamilton Woman is sometimes gorgeous and beautifully ornate, but very often stiff and dull -- especially in its battle-at-sea scenes. It was partly made to rouse American and British audiences into supporting WWII, and in that regard it has dated badly. But the movie has an odd cult appeal that has endured. Vivien Leigh stars at her most stunningly gorgeous -- in black and white no less -- as Emma, who begins life as a lower-class nothing on the grim streets of London. She becomes engaged to the son of an ambassador but discovers that her betrothed is deeply in debt and has "given" her to his father, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), a collector of beautiful things. They marry and she becomes "Lady Hamilton." She begins to enjoy her social life, until a bedraggled soldier, Lord Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier) happens into her palatial home, asking for aid in the war against Napoleon. Her husband hems and haws, but Lady Hamilton uses her friendship with the Queen of Naples to get Lord Nelson what he needs without delay. From there, the married Lord Nelson and the married Lady Hamilton slowly form a passionate, centuries-spanning, heartbreaking illicit romance. A romance to end all romances.

According to legend, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw That Hamilton Woman over 80 times, which makes sense, given its political motivation (but also because Churchill may have written some of the film's speeches). Film critic Andrew Sarris also claimed to have seen it at least that many times. The reason for his obsession is less obvious, and it requires the knowledge that, in playing the adulterous couple onscreen, Leigh and Olivier were actually engaging in adultery in real life. They were both married when they met in 1937, and they were at the height of their passion when they filmed this. So not only does Leigh look outrageously beautiful, but she seems to be radiating sheer, undiluted adoration and desire through her eyes, voice and movements, perfectly received and matched by Olivier. Their scenes together, which make up only a fraction of the entire movie, are unlike anything else ever filmed. It's Leigh's show; she's the organizer, controller and manipulator, but Olivier deserves a few words for his extraordinarily contained performance, strapped in by an eyepatch and eventually the loss of an arm, he projects everything, from sense of duty to surrender to passion, through his voice. (He even makes Churchill's speeches sound spontaneous.) Sara Allgood provides some much-needed lightness as Emma's mother, who can't quite shuck off her working-class origins.

DVD Details: The new 2009 DVD from the Criterion Collection comes in a luminous, black-and-white transfer with a commentary track by Ian Christie. (He's arguably the driest of Criterion's regular commentators; why not one by Andrew Sarris?). There's a video interview with Korda's nephew, a trailer and a promo radio piece. Critic Molly Haskell -- Sarris' wife -- provides the liner notes.

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