Bright Lights Film Journal

Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) on DVD

A pristine transfer of one of the Bard’s most gothic – and gayest, in Olivier’s hands – works

Criterion is continuing its mining of the wonderfully rich Janus film catalog with the recent release of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet on DVD. In terms of extras, this release is rather skimpy. Per the box, it has a “beautiful digital transfer with restored image and sound … English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired …” and “optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition.” As disappointing as this will be to those who’ve come to expect plenty of supplementals on their DVD – audio commentaries, interviews, photo galleries, etc. – there’s ample compensation in the film itself. Olivier’s Hamlet has always enjoyed a reputation as the best of the cinema adaptations of Shakespeare’s seminal play, and the present pristine version does nothing to detract from that reputation.

One of three Olivier-directed Shakespeare plays (along with Henry V, 1944, and Richard III, 1954), this Hamlet won Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Actor. What distinguishes the film from the umpteen adaptations before and after it are the powerful mise-en-scene and Olivier’s alternately brooding and crazed performance as the doomed Dane. Few actors have successfully made the transition to director – Charles Laughton with Night of the Hunter may be the best of the lot – but Olivier shows a surprising command of the medium. His Hamlet is flashy indeed, evincing a very cinematic mastery of atmosphere from the opening credits, which roll over an arresting image of a dark castle surrounded by a fog-drenched sea with crashing waves. The mood is elegantly Gothic, almost expressionist, with chiaroscuro lighting on the flagstones and battlements of the castle; gleaming turrets; and most effectively, swirling fogs that constantly remind us of Hamlet’s unhinged mental state. And Olivier doesn’t stint on the Shakespearean “shocks, ” those melodramatic touches that must have made contemporary viewers squirm in their seats. The best of these is the ghostly image of Hamlet’s dead father, a beautifully visualized, credibly ghoulish figure that floats in the swirling darkness above him on the battlements. One of the most subtly poignant scenes in the film is the ghost’s aching farewell: “adieu, adieu, remember me.” Another fine sequence that demonstrates Olivier’s visual panache is the drowning of Ophelia (Jean Simmons uncharacteristically blonde), a poetic image indeed of Hamlet’s amour floating slowly out of frame in her flower-strewn watery grave.

With its wealth of flashbacks, inventive set-pieces, gliding camera movements, and close-ups, it’s clear that Olivier took his work as a director seriously. But it’s also no surprise that he reserves the most lingering, even idolatrous close-ups for himself, engorging the frame with his handsome visage. In one daring scene he uses a crane shot to swoop from a very high angle into a choker close shot of his sweating angelic face. This works most of the time as a way to (literally) pull the viewer into the character, but it has a problematic element too. In being less generous with the other actors, Olivier dilutes some of the chemistry he might have created between the Dane and those around him. One expects more sizzle between Hamlet and Ophelia, but he’s so self-absorbed in their scenes together that she sometimes appears as a kind of decorative prop. This intense concentration on Hamlet at the expense of the other characters has the virtue of increasing the audience’s sense of his isolation and lonely grandeur, and makes his possible madness that much more real. Of course, fans of gay subtext will find much to love in the one relationship that does set off sparks: Hamlet and his sexy devoted pal Horatio (Norman Wooland). Perhaps the latter was dazzled by Hamlet’s arch stares, eloquent hissy fits, and seizures that skirt the grand mal. Olivier’s delicately peroxided locks also contribute to his irresistible charms.

Olivier’s discernibly gay performance continues to entrance into the 21st century. Simmons seems out of her depth as Ophelia, though to her credit she underplays, avoiding the noisy hysterics too few actresses have resisted in taking on this classic madwoman role. Eileen Herlie deftly sketches Queen Gertrude and milks the Oedipal element to the max with lingering kisses with her son and masochistic, spread-eagled collapses under his verbal assaults. Basil Sydney makes a reasonable King Claudius, but better still are the character roles: Peter Cushing as a very fey Osric, Stanley Holloway as a droll gravedigger, and supremely, Felix Aylmer as old Polonius, whose penchant for gossip earns him a knife in the heart.

Some viewers have quibbled with aspects of this version – for example, the changing of many of the soliloquies to interior monologues (including the “to be or not to be” speech) and the deletion in toto of the two fascinating characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. (One observer has estimated that 40% of the original play was cut, though that seems an overstatement.) And some may prefer the histrionics of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 adaptation or the cheesy carry-on of Zefferelli’s 1990 film or the contempo corporate setting of Michael Almereyda’s recent version. Interestingly, both the Branagh and the Almereyda updated the setting, the former to the 19th century, the latter to today. Part of the charm of Olivier’s version is that it didn’t do that, opting instead for a fully fleshed out period feel (complemented by a beautiful period-derived score by William Walton). The film’s Gothic grimness and formal, stylized acting give it a resonance that seems to come from much farther back than five decades, indeed from Shakespeare’s own time.