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Hamlet: The Criterion Collection (1948)

Olivier's Shakespeare: The Criterion Collection

Laurence Olivier's Hamlet — an all-British production that dominated the 1948 Academy Awards — curiously opens with the Danish prince's body being carried to the grave by his closest friends. In this opening actor/director Olivier chooses a prologue drawn from the "stamp of one defect" conversation early in the play between Hamlet and his confidantes. And then Oliver adds the one line in the film that is not from Shakespeare's pen: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Compared to the many filmed versions of Hamlet over the years (the Internet Movie Database lists no less than 25 theatrical movies and several more television productions), this prologue does a good job of letting us know how Oliver plans to carry out his interpretation, a tightly-plotted film that chops a full 90 minutes out of the four-hour play, eliminating the marginal characters of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras in the process. While the popular interpretation of Hamlet (and many staged versions) view the Bard's young hero as a sentimental, overly emotional boy, Olivier clearly sees him as a robust young man who simply is of two minds — one committed to action and sworn to defend the untimely death of his father by any means necessary, the other emotionally broadsided his perceived betrayal from the two closest women in his life, his mother Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and former fiancee Ophelia (Jean Simmons). And throughout the film, Olivier plays this dichotomy to the rafters, seared with rage when he learns of his uncle Claudius's (Basil Sydney) duplicity, shouting his plans for retribution to the night air. And yet, in the "nunnery" scene with Ophelia, his clever attempts to appear insane give way to a combination of genuine frustration and pity for the general corruption of the royal household as he urges the young object of his affections to escape to a nunnery before she becomes as rotten as everything else in Denmark. In addition to his pleasing, dynamic reading of Shakespeare's oft-abused play, Olivier gives Hamlet a cinematic spark — rather than simply film the play as a play, he takes many liberties with the script, including having Hamlet's monologues delivered in voice-over rather than conventional orations (a decision that remains controversial to this day), and his many set-ups have the mark of a seasoned cinematographer — the ghost of Hamlet's father is presented in surreal fashion, and the expansiveness of the sets are underscored with wide angles, tracking shots, and some sweeping crane work. Keep your eyes open for Peter Cushing, Anthony Quayle, and Christopher Lee in supporting roles. Criterion's DVD edition of Hamlet offers a clean transfer from a pleasant source print (1.33:1) with audio in the original mono (DD 1.0). No extras here, but those who would like to know more about this literary landmark should look for John Dover Wilson's What Happens in Hamlet and Ernest Jones' Hamlet and Oedipus — two influential works of criticism that offer a substantial debate on the play.
—JJB



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