Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet

A part of this view­ing list: Criterion Collection Spine #82: Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet.
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.