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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 February 19, 2001
Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, at 153 minutes, is no popcorn flick. However, in order to get the film down to this rather long length, Olivier had to make significant cuts to the famous Shakespearean play. As a film that won four Oscars, this is (was) mainstream entertainment. Presenting Hamlet in its entirety (or even close to its entirety) under these circumstances was therefore an impossibility. Olivier's modifications come in three forms: small deletions from speeches and conversations, "streamlining" of main story lines, and cuts of entire subplots. The first, least drastic change, leads to the second, and finally the third, and greatest, of the changes. The cutting of lines has the least effect on the production's ability to tell the story. The removed lines are usually unnecessary and repetitive, and the transitions are smooth. Without a written version of the text in front of him, a viewer (unless he knows the play extraordinarily well) can rarely pick out where a line has been cut. A good example of this seamless cutting follows the ghost's exit in the bedroom scene. Hamlet's speech to the queen (Act III, scene iv, lines 144-159) is cut approximately in half, by cutting 2-3 lines from three different places. Such instances - cutting a line here, three lines there, etc. -- can be found throughout the production, but in order to locate them one must follow along with a written text. Rearranging parts of play adds to the continuity of storylines and makes the story itself easier to follow. Viewers familiar with Hamlet, however, will probably find these modifications more jarring. Most of the time this "streamlining" is logical. For instance, the meeting of Hamlet and Ophelia in the nunnery scene directly follows the planning of this meeting by the King, Queen, and Polonius, and Hamlet's "fishmonger" conversation with Polonius. In the play itself, this storyline is interrupted by the players' arrival, but in the Olivier production this event takes place after the unfolding of the nunnery scene. Once again these modifications take place throughout the play. The third, and most obvious modification that Olivier makes is the total removal of subplots, as well as other major events. These cuts have a great impact on the telling of the play. Cutting the Player's recitation of the fall of Troy causes Hamlet's soliloquy, "What a rogue and peasant slave am I..." to be cut. Olivier's decision to delete the character Fortinbras, has great consequences, because this necessitates cutting Hamlet's final soliloquy, "How all occasions do inform against me... ." The ending of the play is also altered by this choice. The deletion of two rather prominent characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has the greatest effect on the play because the deletion or transplantation of several scenes results. The cuts of a line here and there can be viewed as creating a snowball effect that leads to the rearranging of scene, and the rearranging leads to the cuts of whole storylines and events. Most of the material that is cut by the minor deletions is repetitive, and these choices have little immediate effect. However, Shakespeare had a purpose in these repetitions, and that was to ensure that the audience could follow the play. By removing this repetition, one also makes the play considerably more difficult to understand. Olivier employs a logical solution -- that is, increasing the continuity of the story. This requires the rearranging that is so prevalent in his production. However, if one rearranges all of the critical scenes of Hamlet so that they unfold chronologically, then one is left with a considerable amount of unnecessary scenes and even storylines themselves. Therefore, Olivier's decision to cut these excess storylines again seems logical. A viewer familiar at Hamlet may at first find these modifications very uncomfortable, but when one analyzes what caused Olivier to make the decisions he did, these rather sweeping changes become perfectly acceptable.
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on April 23, 2002
It seems almost heretical to say over fifty years after Olivier's Oscar-winning film has passed indisputedly into the realm of "classic," but the fact of the matter is that this is a badly butchered and tolerably performed adaptation of Shakespeare's play. Olivier and text editor Alan Dent cut the script to the bone, eliminating not only the character of Fortinbras (who is a common casulaty of the editor's pen), but Rosencrantz and Guildestern (who are indispensible to depicting a complete version of the story).
Most of the acting is forgettable, with only Academy Award nominated Jean Simmons making any impact as the tragic Ophelia. Olivier is frankly wooden in the role, making one realize that Hamlet was never really his part and that posterity would have been better served if he's left this play alone and instead filmed one of his stage successes such as Macbeth or Titus Andronicus.
Olivier's success comes as a director rather than an actor, depicting Elsinore as a gloomy and forbidding haunted castle. The drum representing the ghost's heartbeat is a masterfully effective device and the look of the film can only be described as wonderfully Shakespearean.
While the virtues of the film are spotty, one scene must surely be ranked as among the greatest ever committed to celluloid: the duel between Hamlet and Laertes in Act V. It is hard to imagine any other production (stage or film) competing the excitement or tension of this compelling action, and Olivier's celebrated leap from a high tower to finally do away with Claudius is worthy of every platitude it has received. (Compare this to the ludricrous display of Kenneth Branaugh throwing a magic rapier from across the palace to hit a super hero's bulls-eye into Claudius' heart in the vulgar and miscast 1996 film and you'll see what I mean.)
Olivier's "Hamlet" was an important milestone in it's day, but is badly dated and does not stand up well to more recent productions such as Derek Jacobi's 1978 BBC production with the pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart as a magnificent Claudius (in my mind the definitive screen "Hamlet") or the filmed record of the John Gielgud/Richard Burton 1964 Broadway production (which is truer to the play's theatrical roots). Olivier's film is indeed a classic, but it brings to mind Mark Twain's definition of the word: "a book that someone praises but doesn't read."
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on May 10, 2003
Olivier's Hamlet has worthwhile parts, but also some very awkward and stagey moments that make it hard to watch for the modern viewer.
For example, he does some of the soliloquies as voice-overs, which means the *picture* can be just a close-up of him staring off into space or striking poses - for minutes! Also, he tends to build volume and fever over the course of certain speeches to end up YELLING at the end, and whenever possible climbing something and jumping off too, all with no apparent correlation to the words involved! Maybe this Hamlet's frustrated ambition is up there at the dreadful summit of the beetling cliff.
Of the supporting cast, I think the Gertrude is strongest, although not very completely person-ized. Ophelia provides no equal match for the queen's sexual magnetism, Claudius is a fine bloated drunken tyrant, Polonius is very silly and doddery.
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on May 27, 2003
There have been many film Hamlets and Sir Laurence, even after he won the Academy Award for his performance here, felt that he was far from ideal. But every Hamlet makes for a different show. Olivier is a frantic Hamlet, energetic even in his melancholy, and he gives a great show. With gorgeous black-and-white cinematography that brings to life the castle Elsinore and great supporting performances, this is one classic that is never dull.
Criterion as usual does a fantastic job. The picture and sound quality of this disc are top notch. My only complaint is that the disc contains no extras. Even the Henry V Criterion had a nice commentary track by a film historian. Because the cinematography is so luminous, however, I'm willing to overlook it. Some probably prefer Branagh's Hamlet, but until it comes out on DVD, one has no excuse not to own Olivier's.
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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 June 19, 2001
A wonderfully Freudian interpretation of the Shakespeare tragedy (check out Gertrude's bed for example), the production wonderfully captures the psychological tension of Shakespeare's words. Yes, Olivier is a wonderful Hamlet, but is he portrayed in the way Olivier the DIRECTOR states at the opening, that being a man who could not make up his mind? Olivier's Hamlet is quite assertive and daring, a swashbuckler in the most cinematic sense (the pirate ship scene or the breakneck dive from the stairs to kill Claudius can be used as support for this idea). Unfortunately the performances surrounding Olivier are not as strong... check out Richard Burton's stage performance on DVD for a wonderful cast production. One question: why aren't they releasing Olivier's Richard III (1955)on DVD?? England seems to get the best treatment.
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on June 24, 2003
A few weeks ago I felt like watching a classic movie. The movie rental store offered a wide selection of classics but I remembered Hamlet with Sir Laurence Olivier from many years ago. So, Hamlet it was.
As I stated earlier, I saw this production of Hamlet before. Also, I saw many other outstanding productions of Hamlet performed by top actors from many countries. I thought I knew Hamlet in details and did not really know why I rented it again. But, let me tell you, Sir Laurence Olivier knew and felt Hamlet better than anyone else. He did not play the role, he lived it. It was so good that I watched it twice in the same day and once more next day for the good measure.
If you have seen it, you should see it again and, if you nave not, you must see it.
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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 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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