Laurence Olivier, was the seventh film seen from my list of 10 Classics to watch in 2012.
HAMLET has always been one of my favorite Shakespeare plays -- in fact, I chose it as the subject for an essay in my AP English exam back in high school days -- but curiously, I don't believe I'd ever seen it performed prior to watching this movie. It had been quite a number of years since I last read the play, so watching the film was somewhat akin to meeting up with a vaguely familiar old friend.
My husband commented that this version of HAMLET is the clearest Shakespeare he's ever seen on film, and I think he's correct; the words fall so naturally out of the actors' mouths that it takes the viewer almost no time at all to become acclimated to the language.
And what language! I couldn't help marveling at the wealth of familiar phrases: "To thine own self be true," "Neither a borrower nor a lender be," "We shall not see his like again," "more in sorrow than in anger," and on and on. One of the recurring themes of the curriculum I used when homeschooling my children was how the Bible and Shakespeare have influenced our language, and that was brought home anew as I watched the film.
The movie is on the long side, clocking in at 2 hours and 35 minutes; even so, it cuts quite a bit out of the original play. According to Terrence Rafferty's essay in the DVD case, Olivier collaborated with Alan Dent to condense the play, and while there are a couple of notable omissions -- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are nowhere to be seen! -- what ended up on screen works very well.
I especially appreciated the movie's eerie atmosphere, presenting HAMLET as a spooky ghost tale. I liked the way the camera explored the castle, searching rooms for the characters; the camera almost becomes a ghostly presence itself, peeking in this room and that, traveling up and down stairs, then pausing to watch a bit more of the story unfold. The gloomy black and white cinematography was by Desmond Dickinson, and the musical score was composed by Sir William Walton.
Jean Simmons was approximately 18 when she played Ophelia; her previous credits included David Lean's GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) and Powell and Pressburger's BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). I especially enjoyed her spirited performance in the early scenes; the later portion of the film got to be a bit tedious. I'm not sure any actress can make going crazy compelling viewing for scene after scene after scene!
Eileen Herlie as Queen Gertrude; in real life she was considerably younger than Olivier, yet her dignity is such she carries off playing his mother. Some of the interactions between Gertrude and Hamlet, as portrayed by Herlie and Olivier, were quite...interesting, with definite Oedipal overtones. Herlie, incidentally, later starred on the soap opera ALL MY CHILDREN for three decades.
The deep cast also includes Felix Aylmer, Basil Sydney, Norman Wooland, Terence Morgan, Anthony Quayle, Peter Cushing, and Stanley Holloway, among others.
As a humorous aside, the stark, empty sets led me to wonder: What do these people have to do all day, other than pick up the occasional book or watch some traveling actors? Maybe I'd go mad in that environment too!
My schedule dictated that I watched the film in sections over a few days; it's not the ideal way to view a movie, but as it turned out, I think it worked well for me to take it in slowly, absorbing and thinking about one segment before moving on to the next.
I wouldn't say this is my favorite type of movie; while beautifully written and performed, it's basically a story steeped in misery -- a lengthy parade of one death after another, with large helpings of insanity along the way! Overall, however, I found watching HAMLET an interesting and enriching experience.
HAMLET is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. There are occasional stray imperfections in the picture but generally it's a nice-looking print. There are no extras.