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The play's the thing.
on May 4, 2005
"Hamlet belongs into the theater," says Mel Gibson, the star of the tragedy's 1990 adaptation by Franco Zeffirelli, in an interview on that movie's DVD. And while primarily expressing regret over a lacking opportunity to explore the role's complexities by nightly slipping into the prince's skin on stage, he also has a point regarding any screen adaptation's validity: the many facets of Hamlet's character have, after all, been debated by literature's greatest minds since the Bard's very own time. For that reason, too, any newcomer is well-advised to first read the play - not see it on stage, nor watch any of the myriad movie versions - but keep an open mind and let the Bard's words speak for themselves. All these centuries later, Shakespeare alone still remains the one true authority on Hamlet's character; and while reading, too, necessarily creates an interpretation in the reader's mind that others may or may not agree with (as does any staging of the complete tragedy), the interpretative element is enhanced even more if this complex play is reduced to somewhat over half its length to comply with cinematic necessities. Nothing proves this better than Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 movie, which won him Best Director and Best Actor Academy Awards, in addition to the film's Best Costume Design and Best Set Decoration honors.
Without question, in his day Olivier was considered *the* quintessential Hamlet; the actor who owned the role like none before and few, if any, afterwards; not least because of this movie and his participation in the 1937 Helsingor (= Elsinore) staging. Olivier's approach follows the still-predominant understanding of Hamlet as a wavering man, "who cannot make up his mind," as he says in the movie's prologue, which borrows from the passage "so oft it chances in particular men that, for some vicious mole of nature in them ... they ... carrying ... the stamp of one defect, ... their virtues else, - be they as pure as grace ... shall in the general censure take corruption from that particular fault," from Hamlet's monologue preceding the encounter with his father's ghost (here: an uncredited Sir John Gielgud). Olivier's prince is weary, subdued: but for confrontations like those with Ophelia ("get thee to a nunnery"), with Gertrude after the play designed to "catch the conscience of the king," and with Laertes over Ophelia's grave, he speaks softly; and unlike other interpretations of the tragedy's single most famous soliloquy, even "to be or not to be" - although dramatically set on a parapet above the ocean's raging waves - already begins half-defeated and emphasizes the reluctant suicide over the reluctant avenger. Yet, while this works well within this film's context, perhaps just *because* the medium also invites interpretation by cutting and rearranging scenes, it seems somewhat ill-matched with Hamlet's later violent curse of his own inaction and renewed vow of revenge ("O, vengeance! This is most brave ..."); a passage essentially omitted here. A torn man he is certainly, but I think with room for a broader range and more forcefully expressed emotions than Olivier allows himself - I'd have liked to see how his approach worked in the full play's theatrical productions. (It also feeds into the Freudian concept of Hamlet's and Gertrude's relationship, and the idea of more than friendship between him and Horatio: equally aspects I don't find firmly anchored in the play.) But there we are: interpretation is the key to it all!
Equally without question, from today's perspective Olivier's Hamlet stands out vis-a-vis the remaining cast's performances even more compellingly than it must have to its original audience; and many today might disagree with a September 30, 1948 N.Y. Times review praising the "beautiful acting and inspired interpretations all the way." Sir Laurence's costars were near-uniformly well-established actors of their time: Basil Sydney (Claudius) a theatrical leading man and matinee idol since before 1920, also with a prolific - though less illustrious - film career, Eileen Herlie (Gertrude) celebrated, inter alia, for stage appearances in "Rebecca" and "Medea," Felix Aylmer (Polonius) a noted Shaw interpreter with (even then) 30 years' stage and almost two-thirds that in screen experience, and Norman Woodland (Horatio) a Stratford-on-Avon regular since the 1930s. Yet, even method acting aside, none of them inhabit their roles in the more complete, natural(istic) way modern audiences have come to expect; rather, the era's stilted stage performances are in evidence, and although then-19-year-old Jean Simmons garnered an Oscar nomination for her Ophelia, her achievement is neither her own career's greatest nor the best-informed portrayal of the maid. (Why Terence Morgan - Laertes - received fan mail for this, his first movie, also escapes me.) I sometimes wonder what might've been gained by cutting speeches down to more succinct dialogue; although behind the scenes this might well have created a feeling that "[e]verybody had a part either too long or too short" (Austen, "Mansfield Park"), thus ultimately doing more harm than good, even if it had made room for Hamlet's ambiguous school-fellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who add depth and texture to the play and to those screen versions preserving them. (The same is true for Fortinbras, but there dramatic dynamics do provide better grounds for the character's elimination in a screen adaptation.)
Both costume design and set decoration, however, were worthy Oscar winners; and while one may debate some cinematographic choices (e.g. the famous pull-back from Claudius's and Laertes's conspiracy), generally the camerawork enhances the movie's richly-layered, darkly-atmospheric setting. Thus, it all comes down to that central question: to cut or not to cut - and if so, what? The first part may not have offered any alternative; it took, after all, until 1996 for Kenneth Branagh to show that Hamlet can be done completely *and* successfully as a movie. As for the second part ... de gustibus non est disputandum. So, yes, a milestone in Olivier's career and Shakesperean history certainly; however "no more but so" (Ophelia), and these days, no longer the one definitive Hamlet, either.