it’s 2019 so let’s talk about approximately ten filmed productions of hamlet

Laurence Olivier (1948)

More than I ever felt with my previous little project, I feel my brain has died. It has utterly given up. I am incapable of thought. I cannot have an opinion, or make up my mind, or be critical, or be a person. I have been struggling not just to write, but to think and speak and act.

I watched dear Laurence Olivier's Hamlet over a month ago now. I have had to go back and revisit it in order to feel I had any semblance of knowing what I'm talking about. 

Even still, my brain is a fuzzy, indecisive mess. I feel like the first third of Olivier's Hamlet. (Ah ha, a terrible transition).

But like my dread, dumb brain, the first third of his film is a fuzzy, dreamy fog of heavy confusion and indecision. Then things rather come to life. I can only hope the same occurs for me.

Olivier, the greatest actor of that past age, directed and starred in this, which a) of course he did, and b) is itself a somewhat bold and bravura thing to do-- the entire thing, in fact, is so bold on paper that it's shocking how stately and slow Larry Olivier's bold and shocking film adaptation of Hamlet feels nowadays. Film taste has changed, of course, and our idea of "good acting" has changed significantly, but even so-- There is something sleepy to it, especially at the start. Yet as I watched, I was taken by how audacious some of Olivier's choices are. His edit of the script itself is wild, cutting out whole characters, plots, and famous speeches. Some of his performance and production choices are utterly fresh, startling verging on bizarre. Perhaps what's actually so impressive is that his final product feels so smooth and cohesive, despite his wild and wheeling treatment of the text. And, on a personal note, he does include a visual representation of Hamlet getting swept away by pirates Act 4, which is so rarely presented or even acknowledged that I was shocked and delighted to see it— and I’ve seen this movie before!

Maybe this feeling of stolid staleness is bleed-over from when I first watched this film sometime in high school. How dull it seemed to me then! How archaic and old-fashioned. But Olivier's cuts are extremely bold, his staging is exciting, his symbolic and interpretive sets, costumes and camera work are inventive and lively. All this for only his second directorial feature! He rolled up out of Henry V, said, I'm gonna take on this complicated, intellectual, long-ass play and make it weird-- and then he won Best Picture and Best Actor at the 1949 Academy Awards. Hell yeah, Larry. Anyone who decides to adapt Shakespeare to film is pretty dope in my book, but to make a career out of it? To win awards for it? Hell. Yeah. Larry.

So let's get into this audacious movie: 

To begin, he starts with some introductory text that's straight out of nowhere. It's nice poetry, fake Shakespeare, and ends with that iconic Olivier touch, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Now, I don't read Hamlet that way, to be perfectly honest. I think he makes up his mind pretty quickly and takes appropriate (if slow moving) steps. In watching the film, I'm not even entirely sure Olivier feels that way, or if he does, it doesn't come across very strongly in his performance. There's little sense of waffling; he himself is too surefooted an actor. But the fact is, that is how Olivier frames his film. The defect he identifies in Hamlet's character is that he cannot be sure, cannot make up his mind.

From there, the production becomes a whirling world straight out of a dream. Turrets emerge from fog and disappear into the sky. Parapets and cliff-faces appear from nowhere and disappear as quickly. Characters come and go without announcement, entering scenes without coming through doors. Walls stretch out at unusual angles, background are clearly painted but unrealistic in proportion, not even pretending at realism. It's strange, but also hazy and sleepy like a rainy Sunday afternoon. The stage set is a surreal one; everything is foggy and lonely and far off. 

Upon this strange and expressionistic stage, we have grounded, low-key plots and performances. This cut of the text takes out all political intrigue, all extraneous plots, making it a very personal, small-scale version of a large-scale play. It's not quite simply a family drama, for the world is still that of royals and you feel that weight. Even if the text doesn't totally address the political implications of regicide and new kings, the importance of all that still sits heavy over the story. Moreover, Olivier presents most of the soliloquies as internal monologue, which is a nice choice all in all, and well suited to his personal, small-scale production. His deliveries are internal, thoughtful, but the voiceover forces a quiet, low energy to suffuse into the speeches. There is little passion to be had in any of them, only whispers. No matter how entrancing it is to watch Laurence Olivier silently act his way around his room while his dulcet tones speak poetry to you, it's also somewhat sleepy. 

Olivier as Hamlet, then. Let's discuss. Overall I think he's pretty good, but there's a strange disconnect between him and the character. It's a very subdued performance, and you can feel his pent up energy even when I'm not sure you're supposed to. He's a very handsome man, but doesn't feel particularly handsome in this (part of it, I suppose, must be his blond hair, which is unnatural on him and very rarely styled in a way which flatters his strong features). He himself admitted he was perhaps better suited to more boisterous parts, and I felt that here. There's something vibrant and energetic in him that it feels he tried to tamp down for Hamlet and which makes his performance quite muted. When he lets loose and really goes big, he's wonderful! But those moments are pretty few and far between. Up against the ghost, he's doing so much and it really works (It also works that the ghost is genuinely scary). In the nunnery scene, he's angry and physical and frightful, and that scene really sings too-- the quiet moments are better for the heightened moments before. Hamlet apologetically kisses Ophelia's hair before leaving her, and Olivier's gentle hesitancy is a beautiful touch.

In his cut of the script, To Be or Not To Be occurs after the nunnery scene, as opposed to before, which creates an interesting dynamic where it's as if Hamlet's regret over his brutal treatment of Ophelia has led him to these miserable thoughts. Oliver does this soliloquy half aloud, half as internal monologue, which is not only a cool technical trick, but speaks to the duality of the speech and the mindset of the character. Nice move, Larry. Hamlet sits on the edge of a battlement, lounging casually, looking handsome, and thinks, and lingers over the pangs of despised love. It's poignant, to place a moment like that after the mistreatment of Ophelia, and to put an emphasis on it. That's the kind of directorial and actorly touch I really love. 

His performance comes alive with the arrival of the players, as suddenly his Hamlet has someone to jam with. The players arrive in total darkness, bringing light with them. Olivier seems emboldened by a bit of action, and settles physically into the part. His wordplay and poetry become sharper and more active, more pointed, more pushy. This second piece of the movie is really where Olivier works the best for me-- by removing the soliloquies from this section of the play (au revoir, What a Rogue and Peasant Slave am I! You will be missed What A Piece of Work is a Man!), as well as Hamlet's telling scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who are entirely excised from this cut!), Olivier takes much of the interiority out of the action. We've spent a lot of time up close with Hamlet to this point; now the movie steps back. 

The scenery opens up and solidifies. Costumes take on more pointed details. It's as if, now with a way to test his theory and pursue his vengence, Hamlet's world comes into focus. Wide shots which had been hazy before now become clear. Amorphous spaces gain edges. 

And yet it’s not like the weirdness goes away. Sometimes Olivier holds the camera on a piece of setting as the scene moves away; or he places faces and characters in deep shadow.

Then comes the play within the play, which I think is the most masterful piece of the movie. There is a shot, briefly, where Hamlet stands upon the stage in advance of the play, a player upon a stage only marginally aware, metatextually and metaphysically, that he is another kind of player upon another kind of stage entirely. It's a remarkable little moment, and I've never felt that sort of layering hit with such power before. Hamlet, alone on a stage on a stage, feeling the stage, the audience, the expectations. Whatever comes, comes. It's good stuff presented without any heavy fanfare. It’s just there, then, like the ephemerality of live theatre, it passes.

And then there is The Mousetrap-- Olivier trims and tweaks, making it a crisp, quick demonstration. His players act, his characters fan about the edges. His camera roams among the crowd, taking in the play from over shoulders and catching glimpses of reactions. And then there are the close ups. The tension ramps high! It's really a remarkable sequence, and speaks to the power of what you can do with movies that you can't do onstage. The directed vision of a movie-- look here, now look here, with no option to look elsewhere-- engages you as an active voyeur to the events. Your gaze flits from face to face, over shoulders and through curtains. The camera takes you stalking through the crowd with a heightened awareness of the reactions of courtiers, of the distressed features of Claudius, the suppressed triumph of Hamlet. Masterful stuff.

So I really like what Olivier is doing throughout. His choices are extremely cogent and follow one upon another. His deliveries heat up— “Now could I drink hot blood,” a line I love, is delivered with a seething, dangerous calm, his face almost entirely hidden in deep shadow. Haunting, sinister.

The next big scene is the confrontation between Hamlet and his mother. Much has been made about the Freudian interpretation Olivier supposedly embraced— as a person who has not done her research on that point, I’m not sure it tracks with what I saw. Though there is a decent amount of romantic kissing on the mouth and trashing about on a bed… and Olivier is about ten years older than the woman playing his mother, which adds an additional strange spin on things.

Act 5 brings a looser Olivier and a looser Hamlet. His wit is playful and engaged. It helps that he has a sounding board— finally Horatio is present in most scenes, giving Hamlet someone to talk to, be witty to, and express his feelings to. This delivery of emotion to a human being, as opposed to in soliloquy, activates Olivier’s performance. I always like Hamlet best in Act 5: returned from his adventure with the physicality of the pirates, he is brought out of his mind and into his body. All is action now, all is inevitable. It’s a big shift in the character that happens entirely offstage, and I so adore to see how actors interpret this shift in attitude, if at all. Some play it as nihilism (“If it be not to come, it will be now”), but I prefer a variant on that: acceptance. Hamlet has come back from a brush with death ready to face what comes. The veil of misery has lifted and he’s ready to move forward. There is still a weight about his heart, but that is soon to be remedied: His mind is made up— Claudius is guilty, so Hamlet will be revenged. Promise to his murdered father kept, Hamlet then can move on to the rest of his life.

Olivier isn’t exactly doing all of that, by any means, but he is lighter. That appears in playfulness. His teasing of Osric is particularly fun, and in a cut that removes most of the jokes, a particularly funny scene. Osric, played by a very young and very silly Peter Cushing, brings a wonderful air of humor with him, and then takes it out with a tumble down the stairs. Best Picture 1949 pushes Peter Cushing down the stairs, and I burst into very happy giggles. During this giddy bit of wordplay, Olivier is smiling with a buoyancy in his step. The first mentions of the wagered fight, there is a bit of hesitancy that comes into the performance. These are subtle moments, wonderful and delicate. Yet even in that most nihilistic of speeches, We Defy Augury, Olivier smiles. Again, I think these scenes benefit from the active presence of Horatio, who here is a warm and welcome friend.

The fight at the end of Hamlet is such a fun adventure in fight choreography— what’s required is a play fight that has simmering stakes which rise violently to the surface. I like the way Olivier handles it. He films much of it up pretty close, so you’re in the action. Every clack and swipe of a rapier can be seen and heard. Hamlet and Laertes both are athletic and fully engaged. Here I must lay some praise on Terence Morgan, who plays Laertes with a violent anger and a seething guilt. Maybe one of the best Laertes’ I’ve seen on film, especially in this last sequence. The choreo itself is clean and crisp, lively with intention. The mortal wounds are marvelously delivered, one to the arm, the other strikingly to the wrist.

And then Laurence Olivier leaps off a wall, tackles the king, and coldly stabs him. Decisive. Without hesitance. It’s… pretty cool. For a character Olivier declared not quite active enough for his style, he certainly finds the remarkable activity here at the end.

Olivier plays the death with great dignity— acceptance to the end. Grief too, and disappointment, but acceptance above all. For the removal of the politics, Olivier does have the courtiers bow to Hamlet at this final moment. For a brief few minutes, he is king. A nice touch. But more importantly, I think, it is not a showy death. I appreciate deeply that Olivier knows when to restrain himself. For all his drama and boldness, these final beats are subdued and tender. The final moments of this play, to me, require great tenderness and feeling from Horatio towards his prince, and that flows beautifully here out of a tender and intimate death. It’s moving, and after the bombast of the past twenty or so minutes of movie, it’s also a gentle return to the foggy sadness of the first few acts. Misery settles again over Denmark, though not over Hamlet himself.

So… a good movie. A good Hamlet.

While I’m not exactly inclined to say that Laurence Oliver was ever a guy who was going to "have fun" with Hamlet, but he sure was a guy who was going to "take liberties", and god bless him that. I much prefer something as wild and wheeling as Olivier's take on this massive, intense play, than something too true to text and tradition. What's really wild is that Olivier has become tradition over the past sixty years (good lord, sixty years??). Perhaps it's because his movie is in black and white, and his actors wear tights, and it's set in a semi-pre-renaissance period, and that Olivier's acting style is no longer in vogue. It has the trappings of tradition, the suits of stateliness, the run-time of an Epic Film. But really Olivier is doing bold things. I swear to all my gods he is. Best of all is that his boldness is matched by intelligent line readings, informed choices and stagings, and a central performance that really steps up to the plate. It is a perfect movie to put on in the background of a drizzly Sunday afternoon, so long as you wake up in time for the thrilling conclusion.

As in most things, what matters is that you stick the landing. If the ending works, people will forget the stuff that didn’t work at at the start. Olivier absolutely sticks the landing. The ending works wonders on me, and so the movie as a whole works wonders on me. Charming, handsome Olivier knows how to film his own face, and he does wonderous work with other faces as well. I will absolutely forgive him being in his 40s here, for while he doesn’t exactly read as a young man, he doesn’t feel as old as his age either. That is the magic of the movie he’s made. It’s all so vaguely set and foggily presented that things like ages and locations don’t seem to matter as much. There’s room for ghosts in a world like that. Then, once that wilderness is established, things can settle. Then there’s room for solidity. Room for high drama and mortal intrigues as well as the more mundane pains of living. That’s the duality of man, and Hamlet, and Hamlet, right there. And Larry Olivier gets that.

I guess the point is that this a good version of Hamlet, and I’m sorry I ever thought it was uninteresting (silly teenage me!). Even now, my dumb foggy brain knows that it’s good and interesting and full of nuance and grand touches. That’s Laurence Olivier for ya. I’m glad he decided to just cast himself in Shakespeare movies. Maybe more people should do that. Shouldn’t we all be stretching our brain muscles by letting ourselves play the parts we want to play? If only we could all love and value ourselves as much as dear Larry Olivier clearly loved and valued himself. I’m not saying we all have Best Picture/Best Actor 1949 gifts within us, but certainly we all must have equivalent gifts? Right?

I’m going a little off track here, but I have to believe my college education and once-decent brain weren’t for nothing. The fog will lift and clarity will return. Surroundings will solidify and I’ll return from the pirates with a new purpose, decisiveness and ability.

Now… where to find those pirates….?

Hannah Blechman