The Best Picture Winners: Hamlet (1948)

| October 19, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

I feel rather odd moving into a review of Laurence Olivier’s beloved adaptation of “Hamlet.”  No one did more to bring the works of Shakespeare to a movie audience, so who am I to critique the work of a man considered to be one of the greatest actors who ever lived?  No one, certainly, in 1948 was complaining.  One just assumed that if Olivier was tackling the work of The Bard then it must be good.

That’s a bold assessment because it overturns any notion of misstep in his production.  Myself, I’m back and forth on this adaptation.  I think he made a brilliant choice to direct himself because another hand might have stunted the work but I think it also leaves this film version feeling like a vanity project.  I can say nothing negative about his performance, which is flawless but I do have a beef with some of his direction.

What I like is the way that Olivier uses the motion of the camera to draw us inward into Hamlet’s turmoil and the stark black and white photography by Desmond Dickinson plays with shadowy world to which the lonely Dane’s eyes are now open.

What I don’t like is that Olivier is center stage most of the time and that leaves all of the other characters in the background, off-center and seeming unimportant.  I realize that it is Hamlet’s story but what impressed me studying the work as a teenager was the population of characters.  There were new characters and new identities in almost every scene with Hamlet sometimes seeming to go through episodes with different outward perspectives as he questions the nature of life and death.  That’s something that this film doesn’t give me.

The problem may be my own.  Hamlet, for me, was never about the murder, it was a dissertation about the meaning of this thing called life and whether the journey is worth all the trouble.  What is the point of the journey?  Is it worth the The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to?  What are we at the end of life?  Why torture ourselves?  To be?  Or Not to be?

I appreciate his filmmaking craft, his ability to reach an audience on film in ways that he never could in a stage production.  His camera moves inward to capture the tortured mind of Hamlet as he deals with the machinations that led his conniving uncle to murder his father.  The problem is that the emotional pull of the key scenes, for me, come up empty.  I don’t feel the melancholy of the “To Be or Not to Be” scene, nor do I feel the mourning that comes from the quizzical cosmic spaces that should be present in the questions that Hamlet’s offers in the famous graveyard scene.

In short, I find this version of Hamlet to be at arm’s length.  I appreciate Olivier’s performance and a few choices in his direction but I just wish I were more impressed by both. For everything I love about this Hamlet there is something that bothers me.  Overall, it is not a movie I choose to spend an evening with.  I find it stuffy and I find that I have to do a lot of lifting to meet Olivier halfway.  He is such a brilliant actor and such a brilliant filmmaker though that this is something I feel that I should never have to do.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.