It’s big. It’s glossy. It’s rather noisy. But it’s also rather charming in its old-fashioned way. Made by Alexander Korda as a none-too-subtle piece of pro-British propaganda during World War II (the film came out in 1941), That Hamilton Woman (called less alluringly Lady Hamilton in the UK) may be pretty sketchy as history, but it’s engaging fun as filmmaking—and a testament to how very good British pictures of the era could be. Its slickness and production values are quite as good as its Hollywood counterparts, while its screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sherriff is certainly no worse than the sort of thing that passed for historical spectacle at MGM.
The film trades heavily not just on the fact that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh were then real-life husband and wife, but that they—like Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton—had fallen in love while still married to other people, which is, I suppose, reasonable enough. Certainly, it’s as reasonable as presenting Napoleon as the Hitler of his age (the film’s anti-Napoleon speechifying is clearly aimed at Hitler and meant allegorically). Of course, it’s all meant to show the kind of personal sacrifice necessary to make Britain great and keep it free. In other words, it’s a period version of realizing that the problems of a few people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. Yeah, it’s a bit corny, without ever being quite campy (which may not be in its favor), and Leigh occasionally looks like she’s on the verge of dropping into a Scarlet O’Hara bout of “Fiddle-dee-dee,” but it’s entertaining.