Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet

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