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Reviewing Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film of Hamlet, James Agee—then a critic at Time—wrote: “The man who brings Hamlet, his friends, and his antagonists to life has tackled one of the most fascinating and most thankless tasks in show business. . . . Very likely there will never be a production good enough to provoke less argument than praise.” This Hamlet, on its release, seemed to be that unlikely production: the reviews were almost universally rhapsodic, and the film won four Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Picture (the first non-American production to take the Academy’s top prize). The whips and scorns of time, however, have unjustly diminished the stature of this great film. The consensus nowadays is that Hamlet is the most problematic of Olivier’s three self-directed Shakespeare movies—that Henry V (1945) is a more vibrant and imaginative piece of filmmaking, and that Richard III (1954) records a more memorable performance. By comparison to those clear triumphs, this Hamlet, once so celebrated, has taken on the quality of a forlorn and nearly forgotten thing, like Yorick’s skull.
Hamlet is, of course, by far the most difficult of the Shakespeare plays that Olivier brought to the screen, and the tragedy’s bottomless, irresolvable ambiguity may account for the instability of critical opinion about the movie over the years. What seemed, at the time, minor quibbles about Olivier’s interpretation of the play and of the title character now dominate discussion of his Hamlet. In cutting this immensely long play to a running time of just over two and a half hours, Olivier and his screenplay collaborator, Alan Dent, eliminated some fairly prominent characters (notably Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras) and even sacrificed a couple of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquies (“O what a rogue and peasant slave am I” and “How all occasions do inform against me”), and thus made themselves vulnerable to charges of butchering the Bard. (Olivier, in answer to such criticisms, took to characterizing his film as merely “a study in Hamlet.”) And some detractors focus on the central performance, noting gleefully that the star, at 40, was rather long in the tooth for the role. Olivier left himself wide open to that attack, too: As Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, he cast an actress (Eileen Herlie) who was in fact thirteen years his junior.
But if you watch this Hamlet with an unprejudiced eye, the objections seem trivial and mean-spirited. It’s a thrillingly intelligent and moving film, photographed in an audacious style that somehow manages to evoke the play’s unique, enigmatic mixture of emotional turbulence and intellectual austerity. Desmond Dickinson’s deep-focus camera roams freely through Elsinore and its craggy windswept environs, sometimes traveling through vast empty spaces before finding the poor human characters it seeks, and then fixing them with a spectral, eerily detached gaze. The restless but oddly serene camera movement is unnerving because it feels subjective yet we can’t quite identify the subject. Something—as implacable as a monster in a horror movie—is stalking these people, observing them from impossible heights and across great distances, while itself remaining out of sight. In Olivier’s Hamlet, we seem to be watching human behavior, in all its awful futility, through the cold, unblinking eyes of God.
And that’s entirely appropriate, because, as Olivier and Dent have shaped the story, Hamlet is revealed, more clearly than ever, as a bold meditation on morality. Yes, they’ve reduced the play—but reduced it to its largest, most mysterious, and most intractable theme. Olivier’s performance, which at first appears unnaturally constrained and recessive, picks up speed as the narrative rushes to its tragic climax, as if the character were being driven by a helpless, perverse attraction to death itself. Olivier conveys the terrifying force of an intelligent man’s desire to reach “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” And in this picture the melancholy prince’s thrusting, aggressive wit and his feverishly exuberant swordplay in the fatal last-act duel with Laertes have an unsettling erotic charge; when Olivier’s Hamlet expires, limp and spent, we feel just how devoutly this consummation was wished for.
This Hamlet isn’t by any means a one-man show: Herlie and Basil Sydney give sturdy, sensitive readings of Gertrude and Claudius; Felix Aylmer is an extremely funny Polonius; and 18-year-old Jean Simmons is the loveliest, most heartbreaking Ophelia you’ll ever see. But it’s Olivier’s sensibility that informs the movie, and the praises and honors heaped on him in 1948 were richly deserved. Given the corrupting effects of time, it’s perhaps inevitable that the mercurial ferocity of Olivier’s acting—the very quality that makes this such a brilliant interpretation—has proved the basis of the most common criticism of his Hamlet. The conventional wisdom now is that Olivier was at his best in more extroverted and flamboyant parts, an idea so persistent that the actor himself came to believe it: “I feel,” he once said, “that my style of acting is more suited to character roles, such as Hotspur and Henry V, rather than to the lyrical, poetic role of Hamlet.” In fact, the striking feature of this performance—as of the whole production—is its atypical vigor: Olivier may be the only actor who has fully recognized that Hamlet’s irresolution has its own fierce energy, and that his morbidity is, at heart, a kind of ardor. If Olivier were better “suited” to the daunting role, he might not have unearthed so many fresh truths in playing it. His Hamlet may actually be his greatest achievement as a filmmaker. In Olivier’s hands, Shakespeare’s elusive, haunted, infinitely suggestive tragedy becomes unusually vivid and compelling, and yet remains, as it must, wondrous strange.
Terrence Rafferty is Critic-at-Large for GQ magazine and author of The Thing Happens: Ten Years of Writing about the Movies.