Laurence Olivier did remarkably well in his transplant of Hamlet to the silver screen. Although the transplant involved a gastric bypass of much of the play’s text, Olivier mitigated this omission by inspired camerawork. Terrence Rafferty’s Criterion essay suggest that the camera is God’s eye view of the action, and while this is on the right track, I think it is slightly more complicated; I posit that the camerawork in just about every scene is driven by the character whose will dominates. Thus, a slight pan to reveal an empty chair tells the viewer that Ophelia is thinking about Hamlet, and a spiraling track-out culminates inside of Hamlet’s head as he begins his most famous soliloquy.
This review isn’t going to be about the acting, or the play itself, but the strengths of the adaptation. The film allows interpretations and effects that were not possible in theatrical releases. Hamlet’s soliloquys often begin internally, through voice-over, and only emerge into diegetic vocalization as his tension mounts. Then there are the visual effects, like the opening sequence that shows a skull on the castle, that, as the camera zooms in, is revealed to be the king’s bedroom, and the eerie phantom of the dead king himself. To be sure, the film’s adaptation is not perfect. When Shakespeare gets self-reflexive and mocks his contemporary theatre-goers, the groundlings, the anachronism is jarring, more so even than it would be in modern theatrical performances.
Much more could be done with set pieces as well, where film-theater-pastoral-tragic-comical productions like Busby Berkeley’s are notorious for the impossible POV shots that the choreographed sequences are filmed in, Olivier’s use of deep-focus and spare but powerful camera movement do more to emphasize the distance between the characters, create dominant lines of sight like crossfire and reveal hidden dangers in every cup, torch and staircase. The crystal clarity of many of the shots that are driven by Hamlet’s will nearly convinced me that he truly was a madman. It isn’t surprising that this film won 4 Academy Awards.
• Criterion Essay by Terrence Rafferty.
• Roy Lisker review with comparisons to Branagh’s version.
• Bright Lights Film Journal review.
• Wikipedia article on the film [with more screenshots].
• YouTube clips: 1 and 2.
• HamletWorks: Everything you’d ever want to know about Hamlet.