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With: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Laurie, Esmond Knight, Anthony Quayle, Niall MacGinnis, Harcourt Williams, Patrick Troughton, Tony Tarver, Peter Cushing, Stanley Holloway, Russell Thorndike, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, Terence Morgan
Written by: Laurence Olivier, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Laurence Olivier
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 155
Date: 05/06/1948

Hamlet (1948)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Mortal Coil

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Despite the three other very good movie versions of William Shakespeare's Hamlet (1990, 1996, and 2000), many world scholars still associate the quintessential film version with Laurence Olivier's 1948 version. It's almost as if Olivier were being credited with writing the play himself. But, having seen all four versions recently, I've come to realize that it's a difficult prospect to choose the best one. Rather, each version has elements that are superior but none renders the others completely obsolete.

Olivier directed this version of Hamlet, as well as playing the lead role. It was three years after his highly successful (and equally revered) Henry V, on which he pulled off the same stunt. Whereas Henry V was in jubilant color, Hamlet is quite the opposite, in brooding black and white. It was another success and it won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, as well as for Best Art Direction (black and white) and Best Costume Design (black and white). Olivier was also nominated for Best Director, and, upon watching the film again, I think he should have won it instead of Best Actor.

As Hamlet, Olivier strikes a bit of a cheeky, cocky note. There's something a bit impenetrable about him. I find this hard to believe myself, but the interpretations of Mel Gibson (in the 1990 version), Kenneth Branagh (in the 1996 version), and Ethan Hawke (in the 2000 version) were almost more interesting overall. Olivier broods well, but he fails to touch on that hint of insanity and desperation that the other three got. He was also, at 40, by far the oldest of the four Hamlets (Branagh was 36, Gibson 33, and Hawke 29). In fact, it may be his performance of Hamlet that helped cause so many people to see Shakespeare as something academic to be endured rather than enjoyed.

Most of the other cast members fare about the same. I found myself missing Bill Murray's interpretation of Polonius (the 2000 version), Liev Schrieber's Laertes (the 2000 version), Billy Crystal's gravedigger (the 1996 version), and Glenn Close's Gertrude (the 1990 version). And strangely, Olivier and his adapter Alan Dent chose to excise Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of the play's most popular characters, from their film. On the other hand, Jean Simmons makes a wonderful Ophelia (she was also nominated for an Oscar), and outdoes the other three (Helena Bonham-Carter, Kate Winslet, and Julia Stiles). For one thing, she's absolutely stunning. For another, her "mad" Ophelia comes across as glassy-eyed, singsongy, and muttering, rather than the screaming, crying interpretations of the recent films. It's much more tolerable and moving. And her death scene, floating on a stream on a bed of flowers, is both simple and stunning.

Acting aside, though, Olivier's direction of the film is inspired. This 1948 version is easily the most fluid of the four versions. The play flows absolutely seamlessly from scene to scene. There's no break or breather inbetween; it's not content to stop and pat itself on the back for getting through a scene. It just keeps moving. The camera creeps through the gloomy castle walls, climbing up staircases, and going in and out of windows. Olivier lets many scenes play out without cutting (or without seeming to cut). He moves the camera around the room, getting a feel for the space and the physical relationships. He rarely wastes time on simple close-ups, however tempting that may have been. The sheer motion and momentum keeps it from feeling like a play. Moreover, this Hamlet is based less in theater than it is on other film genres; the film noir and the ghost story. It's beautiful achievement.

Now that I've nit-picked Hamlet to death, I'm still going on record as recommending it. If anything can be called the greatest play ever written, it's Hamlet. And part of the beauty of it is the numerous interpretations that can be pulled from it. So, in essence, any Hamlet is worth seeing. I'm just tired of the assertions that Olivier's is the one and only version, and I don't want to further that outdated notion.

DVD Details: The new DVD of Hamlet from the Criterion Collection is of typically fine quality. It's a dual-layer disc made from an archival film print with both sound and picture digitally restored. The rich photography and ghostly sound does especially well on the new format. And while there are no real extras, I found the optional English subtitles an excellent way to watch the movie and absorb all the wonderful dialogue.

I first saw Olivier's Hamlet (probably like most people) in a high school English class on a cruddy old video tape. At the time, I suffered through it in the name of "art." After all, it was a classic. But I never truly loved it. Now that I've had a chance to see it again, and in such a lovely format, I admit that I've now grown a little more attached to it. It's still not quite a perfect film, but it will do.

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