As Ethel Barrymore opened the envelope at the 1949 Oscars and learned that Hamlet had been selected by her peers as Best Picture of the year, she couldn’t help but look sorely disappointed. After all, she was no fan of the film, having criticized (as many others did) the way Laurence Olivier had shortened Shakespeare’s play. Her brother John created one of the most celebrated interpretations of Hamlet on stage in 1922, a production Olivier had seen and admired, and Ethel wasn’t happy about how Olivier took liberties with the text. Apparently, she failed to see how the play had become a truly cinematic experience in the process.
A ghostly apparition at the castle
In Elsinore, three sentries become witnesses to a ghostly apparition that seems to be the late King Hamlet. They head to the castle where they tell Prince Hamlet (Olivier) what they’ve seen. The news comes at a time when young Hamlet is still mourning his father’s sudden passing and can’t quite accept the equally sudden marriage between his mother Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and the King’s brother Claudius (Basil Sydney). After all, it was ”within a month!” When Hamlet hears of his father appearing as a ghost, he joins the sentries at the battlements where they saw the King.
The late Hamlet appears once again, motioning to his son. In private, the ghost tells him what happened, that his death wasn’t accidental. He was poisoned by Claudius. Hamlet is startled and doesn’t know what to believe at first. He decides to test Claudius, by pretending to have gone mad…
Using deep-focus cinematography brilliantly
This was the second screen adaptation of a Shakespeare play that Olivier had made and it was just as groundbreaking as Henry V (1944), even surpassing it in some ways. Above all, it showed that there was a wealth of Shakespeare plays that could be filmed and fit the screen in ways that suited the medium. Like many other films in the 1940s that came after Citizen Kane (1941), Hamlet used deep-focus cinematography brilliantly, inviting the audience into the dark corners of the Elsinore castle, but also Hamlet’s mind that seems intertwined with Roger K. Furse’s production design, reminiscent of German Expressionism. In other words, it’s a visually dark, twisted take on the play that never seizes its grip on us.
The film is more straight-forward than Henry V, avoiding the Globe framing and taking us directly into the story and the Danish setting. Henry V also shortened that play wisely, but in the case of Hamlet Olivier’s interpretation became influential. His decision to cut two important supporting characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wasn’t popular among some purists, but even John Gielgud did the same a few years later in a radio production. There were other novel ideas. A pulsing heartbeat signaled the appearance of the ghost, a trick Olivier borrowed from a French stage production; those scenes are magnificently, eerily staged, with the star himself doing the ghost’s voice, as an amplified whisper, played back at a reduced speed.
Olivier also made his scenes with the considerably younger Herlie as his mother look like a romance, emphasizing Sigmund Freud’s 1899 reading of the play as an Oedipal conflict. Above all, the film is an intense psychological drama, the director’s visual choices and acting reminding me of both Bergman and Kurosawa; Olivier’s hypnotic voice draws us into Hamlet’s monologues.
Modern audiences may find this film old-fashioned, considering how the plays have inspired all kinds of inventive interpretations in later years, set in wildly different periods and locations. But Olivier’s artistic choices here made Shakespeare look daringly fresh.
Hamlet 1948-Britain. 153 min. B/W. Produced, written and directed by Laurence Olivier. Play: William Shakespeare. Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson. Music: William Walton. Art Direction, Costume Design: Roger K. Furse. Cast: Laurence Olivier (Prince Hamlet/King Hamlet), Eileen Herlie (Gertrude), Basil Sydney (Claudius), Felix Aylmer, Jean Simmons, Stanley Holloway… Peter Cushing, Anthony Quayle, Christopher Lee.
Oscars: Best Picture, Actor (Olivier), Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Film. Golden Globes: Best Actor (Olivier), Foreign Film. Venice: Grand International Prize, Best Actress (Simmons), Cinematography.
Last word: “Because the cuts were so few and far between, each cut was obvious and could cause a visual jolt to the spectator unless it happened at the right psychological moment. The right psychological moment could be dictated by a movement, a piece of action or by the rhythm of Shakespearean speech. In either case it was a matter of finding the exactly right frame to cut from one scene to another, and a fraction of a second (there are 24 frames to a second of film) could make all the difference between a jarring and a smooth cut. Only rarely was I able to show that I could do a real job of editing a scene by combining a number of shots to create drama.” (Editor Helga Cranston, BFI)