Movie Information

In Brief: Time has not been especially kind to Laurence Olivier's Hamlet. When it first appeared in 1948, it was the last word in culture at the cinema. Today, a lot of it feels stilted, alarmingly middle-brow and occasionally rather silly. (Some of Olivier's expressions look more like a parody than a serious attempt at the role.) That said, it's still a very good looking film, and on occasion, it even lives up to its 1948 reputation.
Genre: Shakespearean Tragedy
Director: Laurence Olivier
Starring: Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Eileen Herlie, Basil Sydney, Norman Wooland
Rated: NR

I can remember back around 1971 watching Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) on the late show. Being that I was about 16 at the time and my only sources for criticism were those Steven Scheuer and Leonard Maltin movie guides, I was firmly convinced that I was getting a truly amazing dose of Culture from which I would emerge a better and more rounded person. (Actually, I liked it well enough, but I doubt it made any marked change in me for better or worse. Anyway, I’d seen the Brit TV version with Richard Chamberlain.) Looking at the film 40-plus years later … well, it’s a mixed bag — and a mixed bag with a central irony. You see, when the film came out in 1948 to an enthusiastic reception (despite reservations over Olivier’s cuts), it wasn’t the only Shakespeare adaptation going. There was also Orson Welles’ Macbeth. It had been made for Republic Pictures — known mostly for serials and cowboy pictures — and was pretty roundly slammed. (It did have its champions, including Jean Cocteau, but they were the exception.) The funny thing was that Olivier’s film was so stylistically influenced by Welles that it might have been called Citizen Dane. Funnier still, you’d be hard-pressed to find many today who don’t rank Welles’ Macbeth over Olivier’s Hamlet. Oh, well.

All that aside, Olivier’s film mostly suffers from being a weird mix of the bold and the boringly academic — not to mention some wonky casting, notably 30-year-old Eileen Herlie playing 41-year-old Olivier’s mother (it might have worked onstage, but not on film). Stretches of the movie — especially Olivier’s dramatic poses (he sometimes looks like he’s posing for a photo spread in the old Blueboy magazine as he drapes himself over the settings) — play like parody. (One wonders if Laurence Harvey patterned his strip-tease Hamlet in 1969’s The Magic Christian on Olivier.) However, there are good things about the film — including the more lively parts of Olivier’s performance. (It’s when he get mopey that Sir Larry looks foolish.) Plus, it is a very handsome production — the Welles influence pays off — and is sometimes so moody in its atmosphere that it almost feels like a horror picture. And then there’s the play itself. That makes up for much all by itself.

The Hendersonville Film Society will show Hamlet Sunday, Oct. 6, at 2 p.m. in the Smoky Mountain Theater at Lake Pointe Landing Retirement Community (behind Epic Cinemas), 333 Thompson St., Hendersonville.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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