1940s, 3.5/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Laurence Olivier, Review

Hamlet (1948)

Making a movie from Shakespeare is kind of cheating, isn’t it? Laurence Olivier, fresh off of his success of bringing Henry V to the screen in 1947, ended up zeroing in on Hamlet as his follow up (Orson Welles’ long in the works pair of adaptations of Macbeth and Othello apparently helped affect Olivier’s thinking), and, after butting heads with Technicolor executives and advisors, decided to film his adaptation in black and white. Heavily influenced visually by Welles’ and Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane and, I’m pretty sure, Universal Monster movies, Olivier crafted a surprisingly spooky rendition of the play in film form, cutting the almost unwieldy work from about four hours to two and a half, but never losing sight of the poetry, the emotion, or story itself.

What’s obvious from the first is that this was not a cheap production. The sets designed for the film are huge with vaulted ceilings, large backdrops, and little concern for feeling terribly realistic. They don’t feel completely surreal, but there’s a marked unreality about their height, their depth, and, mostly, the backdrops that form the outside or looks down halls just from the main rooms. This, combined with the striking, precise key lighting and heavy use of fog outside creates a real ethereal look that honestly would have felt perfectly at home in Frankenstein. It’s a great place to begin the tale of ghosts, murder, and indecision because it’s on this backdrop that the young prince Hamlet (Olivier) sees the ghost of his father (also Olivier) with his friend Horatio (Norman Wooland) who informs him of his murder, he says, by his brother Claudius (Basil Sydney). Now, the only other adaptation of Hamlet I know pretty well is Kenneth Branagh’s from 1996. Both films use flashbacks to help visualize what’s going on, but Olivier’s hides the face of the killer while Branagh’s makes it plain that it’s Claudius. This little choice, I think, shows how well Olivier understands the power of visuals in cinema since by putting Claudius’ face there in that flashback, it removes any doubt about whether the uncle killed the father from the audience, while leaving the face out leaves in a certain amount of suspicion that the ghost may not be telling the truth, or even real.

The one casting choice that is the most curious is that of Gertrude, played by Eileen Herlie, who was eleven years younger than Olivier who plays her son. There were reportedly troubles with finding an actress who wanted to play the role because they didn’t want to play a mother, but I wonder if Olivier was simply trying to cast too young in general. I mean, Herlie is quite good as Gertrude, especially in her key scene when Hamlet kills Polonius (Felix Aylmer), but she’s obviously younger than her son. I don’t know if it’s a certain level of vanity from Olivier (who was about forty when he made the film), but the play makes it explicit that Hamlet the character is thirty years old. Looking for a late-20s, early-30s woman for Gertrude is…wrong, unless he’s trying to lean heavily into the incestuous implications that some people read into the film, sourcing some of Hamlet’s antipathy towards Claudius in the prince’s desires to possess his mother. Making her a young, attractive woman in that case makes sense, but I don’t think the film really plays too much into it beyond Herlie’s casting.

The one character that feels like she suffers the most from the cuts is Ophelia (Jean Simmons). She really doesn’t say a whole lot before the death of Polonius, but she does have the early nice scene with her brother Laertes (Terence Morgan) where she reveals the not entirely hidden romance she’s having with Hamlet, but it, of course, becomes the scene where Polonius gives his litany of obvious advice to his son. Polonius has always been a subject of comedy for me in the play, and I think Olivier plays that up to a degree where he goes from kind of oblivious at his own dull-wittedness and pomposity into borderline stupid, and it entertains me. With the deletion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the production, Polonius becomes the main focus of Hamlet’s sarcastic derision, and heightening that gives some good juice to the early comedy around him.

Anyway, Ophelia becomes much more of a pawn in this than in other productions, shorn of a lot of her dialogue. Pushed back and forth by Hamlet and Polonius over the first half of the play, it becomes a showcase for the young Simmons to emote theatrically as the broken girl. There’s an interesting moment in the “get thee to a nunnery” scene where Olivier plays the moment like he’s not really trying to insult Ophelia but save her, turning the sarcastic and insulting suggestion (a nunnery is a play on words with a double meaning that could mean a whorehouse) into almost a plea in his final suggestion, like he’s trying to save her from the hell that he’s about to unleash upon the kingdom.

Another change is the complete excision of Fortinbras (except a single mention of his father in the gravedigger scene) which always, I felt, provided a larger framework and lesson to the work about the damage that elite self-destruction can lead to. The murder of King Hamlet sets of a chain of events that leads Norway to being able to take over Denmark that wouldn’t have happened had King Hamlet lives. That change is a typical one because it’s a tangential point that doesn’t really directly impact the central story.

An interesting stylistic choice Olivier makes is that some of the soliloquies are either wholly or in part done with voiceover. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this. The audio performances aren’t bad, though they gain a whispery quality that just reminds me of David Lynch‘s Dune, but it feels like an effort at realism in a film where the visual effect is decidedly unreal. Speaking of the visuals, there’s a nice little thing Olivier does with his camera when the ghost is approaching near the beginning. As the soundtrack fills with the sound of a heartbeat and the characters (alternatively Horatio and Hamlet) look on at the appearance of the ghost, the camera racks in and out of focus really quickly with the beat. It’s something I don’t think I’ve seen in another film, and I really like it.

So, what are my thoughts overall? I really like it. I kind of love it. Olivier understood Shakespeare and the play well enough that he could make intelligent cuts and changes to the script so that it fit into two and a half hours instead of four. Visually, the film is really striking while fitting the narrative in interesting ways. Performances are really good all around, and it’s not a real surprise that Olivier carries the film well as the central character. My only real complaints are around the seemingly pointlessly young casting of Eileen Herlie as Gertrude (though, again, her performance is really good) and the cuts to Ophelia specifically. Other than that, this is a highly accomplished, handsome, and even involving take on the famous play. I wonder if Olivier would be as good while making a film that wasn’t based on Shakespeare.

Rating: 3.5/4


2 thoughts on “Hamlet (1948)”

  1. I’ve seen 3 movie versions of the play – the Branagh and Zefirelli versions all have their strong points (the Ophelia part is best, most tragic, in the Zefirelli version), but overall this one works best for me. I’m with you on the black and white photography, gives it a moody eerie feel, plus emphasizing that it was set such a different era.

    That Shakespeare guy could really turn a phrase (I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space) but he did get a little verbose, some trimming isn’t out of order I don’t think. I really like the way Olivier handled the climax, the fencing contest, Branagh had that whole army attacking the castle bit in there. That seems to diffuse the drama of things being resolved by Hamlet and the King and then ending. Otherwise they have that secondary story of the kingdom being overrun, seems like at that point you’d just think – oh well, they were going to be killed anyway.


    1. I’ve seen the Zefirelli version one time: in high school. So, it’s been a while. I remember adopting some of my teacher’s attitudes around it because they added dialogue in the beginning. I also remember that it’s dark and dank, and that’s about it. I should give it a rewatch at some point. I once considered going through all the adaptations of Hamlet, or maybe even Shakespeare. I ended that idea real quick once I saw how many there were. It’s…a lot.

      I really like how Branaugh included the Fortinbras stuff, and even the intercutting of the charging army with the duel. It’s that idea that this sort of chaos within a ruling class opens up the country as a whole to destruction, which is an extension of the destruction of the whole Hamlet family stemming from the death of King Hamlet, writ large. They can’t concern themselves with exterior matters anymore. Everything is internal, and it opens it up to destruction.

      The play works well enough without Fortinbras, but I always like it when he’s included.


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