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HAMLET (director: Laurence Olivier; screenwriters: from the play by William Shakespeare/Alan Dent ; cinematographer: Desmond Dickinson; editor: Helga Cranston; music: William Walton; cast: Laurence Olivier (Prince Hamlet), Eileen Herlie (Gertrude, the Queen), Basil Sydney (Claudius, the King), Norman Wooland (Horatio), Felex Aylmer (Polonius, Lord Chamberlain), Jean Simmons (Ophelia), Terence Morgan (Laertes), Stanley Holloway (Gravedigger), Peter Cushing (Osric), Russell Thorndike (Priest), John Laurie (Francisco), John Gielgud (Voice of the Ghost); Runtime: 155; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Laurence Olivier; Criterion Collection, The; 1948-UK)
“One of the best versions of the Bard’s.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Surprisingly, this was the first Hamlet of the sound era. Producer, director and star Laurence Olivier’s version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, first performed in 1603, has been criticized for cutting down the four-and-a-quarter-hour play to a two-and-a-half-hour film and making it more stagy than cinematic. It can be critiqued for its amateurish camerawork of many pointless and uninteresting shots (Olivier fell in love with the camera and became like a kid in a candy store). The visual effects pale when compared with the superb camerawork in the 1964 Russian version by Kozintsev. Also irritating, is that Olivier has the nasty habit of following up disclosed plot points by loud musical flourishes and tight close-ups of contorted faces. Nevertheless, even if Olivier has simplified his self-absorbed main character and cut many scenes from the play to hasten the action (to my dismay it excised the amusingly gabby Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scene) and delivered the famous soliloquy, “to be or not to be,” of Hamlet showing his ambivalence to act decisively in an overwrought manner, in this English version we get to hear the brilliant spoken English and it proves to be one of the best versions of the Bard’s. Olivier’s interpretation deems Hamlet as a failed great man because of his lack of resolution to act with due speed. Also, this Hamlet separates itself from the other English language versions because of its powerful mise en scène and Olivier’s moving performance as the brooding doomed Danish Prince–perhaps his greatest performance despite a few flubs.

The basic plot is kept intact. Hamlet swears to his father’s ghost that he will revenge his father’s murder by taking the life of Claudius, who is now married to his mother Gertrude.

The black and white shot film sets the somber mood for its tragedy in Denmark’s hauntingly creepy Elsinore Castle with its opening of the fog emerging from the sea to wrap itself around the castle. The actors adorn rich period costumes and offer sharp performances, and the ghosts that appear seem eerily possible. Eileen Herlie as the Queen Gertrude, does an outstanding job showing conflict over the heartache of a ruptured attachment to her son and a need to love her dead husband’s brother King Claudius (Basil Sydney). Jean Simmons makes for a worthy Ophelia, who brings sincerity to her role of going loony over a shattered romance.

Hamlet won Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Actor. REVIEWED ON 8/30/2007 GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”