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on May 11, 2002
There are several film versions of Shakespeare's great play about the troubled Prince of Denmark; Mel Gibson's imbues the drama with a barely restrained mania while Kenneth Branagh's is notable as the most nearly complete version yet made. Still, it is Olivier's production which remains the standard, and justifiably so. His is the performance which I believe most nearly matches the Bard's own vision of how the tormented Hamlet should be played--sensitive, caustic and impassioned yet tortured and lost. Olivier's direction leads the viewer inexorably into the heart of the play, whose characters move through the nearly inescapable walls of Castle Elsinore like sleepwalkers through a lucid dream. But Olivier couldn't do it all himself, and doesn't need to. Felix Aylmer is a likeable wise old fool as Polonius; Eileen Herlie is an appropriately confused queen and mother; Basil Sydney is well-cast as the villain who would rather not be; and Jean Simmons shines as Hamlet's innocent love, whose disintegration is so realistic it breaks the watcher's heart. More, the individual scenes are beautifully orchestrated. Oliver's rendition of the "To be or not to be" soliloquoy is pure magic, and the story's climactic duel is worth the wait, as Hamlet and Laertes (Ophelia's brother, well assayed by Terence Morgan)duel to the death--one unwittingly, and both to the death of more than each other. True, the production is incomplete, and the lack of Rosencranz and Guildenstern is a regrettable omission. But overall, Olivier's film captures the essence of Shakespeare's play like no other. As long as Hamlet is studied in schools, this will be the version most often used to show how the play should be done. A worthwhile addition to even the most discerning video library.
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on June 10, 2001
Many people have tried to play Hamlet - some with great results, others have not. But one thing is certain, Sir Laurence Olivier is the quintessential Prince of Denmark!
In 1948, Olivier brought to the screen William Shakespeare's classic play HAMLET to the big screen. Though it isn't the entire play (go see Kenneth Branaugh's 1996 version of the complete text of HAMLET), it is still considered a great depiction of the angst-filled prince and his decisions involving the murder of his father by his own brother, the new king of Denmark.
The evil King Claudius, played by Basil Sydney, is the man who murdered his brother and married his brother's wife Queen Gertrude, played by Eileen Herlie. Claudius has poisoned his brother, as he was sleeping in the orchard, by pouring the hemlock through his ear. Months later, Claudius marries Gertrude and Hamlet returns home to find things have changed around Denmark. One night, while on guard duty, the guards discover that the ghost of the late king is still haunting the castle. They tell Hamlet of this, who meets with the spirit of his father, who tells him that his brother had poisoned him! Hamlet stages several bouts of lunacy in order to draw Claudius out with the help of a band of actors staging the actual murder scene. Thrown in the mix is the elderly advisor, Polonius (Felix Aylmer), his son Laertes (Terence Morgan), and his daughter Ophelia, played with wonderful innocence by Jean Simmons (Best Supporting Actress nominee).
In the end, everyone dies! Ophelia drowns after learning that her father was killed by Hamlet, her lover; Gertrude drinks a cup of poison meant for Hamlet; Hamlet kills Laertes in a duel; Hamlet then murders his Claudius, and is too murdered by a poisoned sword created by conspirators Claudius and Laertes. It is a sad, tragic story that was brought with much poignancy and a little humor, thrown in with a bit of film noir!
Winner of 4 Academy Awards including: Best Picture - Laurence Olivier, producer; Best Actor - Laurence Olivier (also nominated for Best Director); Best Art Direction/Set Decoration (Black & White); and Best Costume Design (Black & White).
It may not be the complete HAMLET, but it certainly is the best version!
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on January 24, 2001
Olivier, one of the great actors of his time, shines as Hamlet. Particularly in the soliloquies, he delivers the lines with true subtlety and understanding of their depth. Unlike Branagh, Olivier "o'ersteps not the modesty of nature" while playing, and portrays Hamlet as the complex, profoundly intellectual, and deeply perceptive and sensitive character that he is.
Olivier's direction is equally impressive. Camera movement is tasteful, and segues between scenes beautifully incorporate William Walton's lovely orchestral soundtrack.
My two major complaints are: First, the liberal cuts in the text (Olivier himself referred to his film as "an essay in Hamlet" rather than an actual rendering of the piece), and what I think is a lackluster average supporting cast.
Laertes in particular is so stiff and wimpy that you cannot detect even a trace of anger in him, even after his father has been murdered by Hamlet. Claudius too, while at once both graciously regal and yet conniving and depraved, is way too stiff and stale in his delivery in many scenes to seem like the "incestuous, adulterate beast" he is purported to be. The Queen and Ophelia I find to be average, each having some highlights and lowlights. (The confrontation scene between Hamlet and Gertrude after Claudius' soliloquy is a highlight for both actors) Polonius is the "foolish, prating knave" he should be, but again is one-dimensional and lacks any type of depth or subtlety. Horatio is fairly good on most counts here; his physical performance is at times arresting in its restrained intensity, although he comes across as rather dim-witted at times. Many of these criticisms can probably be chalked up to the changes in acting style through the years... we're used nowadays to seeing more emotion in a character, and this production is extremely formalistic and restrained.
I regard this film as a classic and have watched it many times. And while I used to adore it, it was the first Hamlet I ever saw, and after studying several other versions (Mel Gibson, Nicol Williamson, Branagh, Derek Jacobi) I feel more comfortable analyzing its strengths and weaknesses more objectively in comparison to the other versions. None of these versions is in my opinion without a few serious problems, but my favorite now is probably Jacobi's (BBC). It is almost complete in the text, and features fine acting across the board. BTW there is an incredible audio version of the complete text featuring Anton Lesser as Hamlet.
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on December 26, 2000
I would have to say that this is one of the two best Hamlet's on film. This is known as the "traditional" Hamlet, and the other great is the recent modern take on the play with Ethan Hawke and Julia Stiles. Laurence Olivier plays a melancholy, intelligent, and loving Hamlet, well suited to the gloomy castle settings of Elsinore. Olivier was forty when he made this, but makes himself look twenty years younger. His Hamlet is never boring or overwrought, it is simply perfect. Eileen Herlie was 25 when cast as Gertrude. She graciously allowed herself to be made up to look older. Her performance is satisfactory, conveying the dueling emotions that she has for her son and Claudius well. There is a strong overtone of incest here, which is fine since I believe that to be a valid interpretation. Herlie's Gertrude is also strong-willed at times, knowingly drinking the poisoned cup to save her son. Basil Sydney as Claudius is excellent, although his is played as an overweight drunk. He has some fine moments and deserves credit for playing such a difficult role well. I like Felix Aylmer's performance as Polonius. He is played not as comic relief or as a doddering old man, but as an intelligent fool who is full of himself and enjoys throwing his weight around. Jean Simmon's interpretation of the tragic Ophelia is that she is a virginial woman who is somewhat dim-witted. Ophelia is not dim-witted, her destruction is caused by herself being used and stamped on by men, and not being allowed to fight back. At the end of the nunnery scene Ophelia is seen weeping on the stairts. Polonius comforts her a little, and then leaves her in desperation while he exits with Claudius. Her madness scenes and suicide are good and affecting. The overall atmosphere of this Hamlet is right. It is faithful to the play, and evokes an engrossing mood. My only large complaint is that Terence Morgan as Laertes looks too much like a football player than a courtier.
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on November 8, 2000
My only real complaint about this is that the director does not show Claudius' finest moment well. (4.5 when he quells Laertes' raid with pure courage and intelligence.) But aside from that, the movie is excellent. The scenery and effects are well done. Olivier is wonderful as usual. He portrays Hamlet's multiple dimensions very well. Claudius could have been done better, but it probably is not fair to compare this actor to the eventual Alan Bates' phenomenal and unsurpassed portrayal of Claudius. Laertes could have been more animated, but he does fairly well. Considering the limited resources back then, the ghost of Hamlet's father is done very well. (Sorrow as opposed to horror is emphasized.) Horatio is excellent in his secondary, but important role. Even the background noises and sound effects are done well. (The background of water in Hamlet's famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy is a real artistic touch.) Even though my favorite version was Mel Gibson's, I think it is wrong to ignore this version.
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on May 30, 2004
This review is for the Criterion Collection DVD edition of the film.
In this release Olivier's second adaptation of a Shakespeare play, Olivier again plays the title role. Unlike the previous film, this one is in black and white,
It follows the story of a Danish prince bent on avenging the murder of his father by his uncle.
I would assume that most people know the plot so that is all I will say about it,
The DVD has no special features which is not normal for a Criterion release.
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on August 5, 2001
William Shakespeares's Hamlet is a perfect little play that needs no explaining here. This is a very good film version although it, for the most part, never escapes appearing somewhat stagy on film and never uses the camera (other than in its wonderful use of hallways and doorways) to escape the confines of the stage. This version, as to some extent they all do, rests on the performance of the man in the lead. And in this, Laurence Olivier, does a superb job with only the occasional embarassing missteps. The rest of the cast is generally also of high quality with a only a couple who would be ranked as adequate (notably, Jean Simmons' Ophelia and Peter Cushing distracting as a screaming queen and not the kind with a actual crown). This version still stands up to any of the more recent filmed versions and is a fine addition to any collection.
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on July 9, 2001
This was the first film I was taken to see, at age 5. I loved it then, love it now. Filmed in Denmark, it's a stylish work of art. The sets and cinematography are fabulous, and it boasts a superb score by Sir William Walton.
The magnificent Olivier gives us the most poetic and melancholy Hamlet on film...the way he uses his eyes in this performance is extraordinary, and very moving. Jean Simmons is a delicate and beautiful Ophelia, I like Eileen Herlie's Gertrude, and Norman Woodland's graceful Horatio is outstanding.
Though the Zeffirelli/Gibson version is perhaps my favorite, and Branagh's ever so long uncut version stunning, this one shouldn't be's the classic of all classics...riveting even for a child of 5 !
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on February 5, 2004
This used to be the definitive "Hamlet," but I fear it has become quite dated with its painfully obvious Freudian interpretation of the characters and their motivations.
Olivier delivers a great performance, as does the supporting cast, and the production lends a fog-enshrouded creepiness to the matter, but it gets lost a bit in the heavy-handed reading of the work itself.
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on March 30, 2001
I would be the last to criticize an actor who has done so much fine work as Olivier if I didn't feel it was absolutely necessary. His direction of the cast (he left the cinematographic direction to another) is sensitive and perfectly realizes his rearranged text. However, his own performance varies between subtle, intelligent, gripping readings of the lines and the same wildly over-the-top arms-windmilling scenery-chewing that Hamlet warns the Players against presenting! Still, judged as a film, this is a masterpiece. I only wish Olivier had been as good at directing himself as he was at directing the rest of the cast. His Hamlet is, in its way, a masterpiece, but a slightly flawed one.
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