Hamlet, the film that introduced me to the works of William Shakespeare and Laurence Olivier; A personal story about death, grief, revenge and insanity. A film that was nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1949, and graciously winning four, including Best Picture. It is now 2014, more than 50 years has passed and does a film like Hamlet still have a spot in the hearts of contemporary and future audiences? It is hard to say, and for one who has only seen Olivier's adaptations of the playwright's works, I cannot display an intelligent comparison and analysis; but what I am confident with, is that Hamlet has a strong and firm place on my mind as it opened my eyes of cinema that I have been reluctant to venture for so long.
By now, this would be my third or fourth viewing of Olivier's Hamlet, and with each passing viewing and contemplation, I find more elements about it that intrigue me, but it has also solidified the aspects of its production that I find to be inferior. I have not read the source material, therefore I cannot state how much of this film remains faithful, but since Kenneth Branagh's same adaptation in 1966 seem to have a larger running time and created at a time where thematic restrictions have been looser, I assume that film would demonstrate something much more faithful. Regardless Olivier's take is faithful or not, it still is an effective character and thematic study, one that uses classic melodrama and deliver it in such a way that remains faithful to stage productions and innovative for its cinematic audiences; similar to what was brought for Henry V. Henry V has proven to the world that Olivier could make it as a director, showing scope and intelligent use of the source material; Hamlet broke more ground by proving that he is also competent in telling intimate stories of fragile and emotionally plagued characters. I found Olivier's take on Henry V to be simplistic, lacking interesting qualities that would allow the audiences to be at awe with b his fascinating journey. Hamlet features a figure that is complex, full of darkness shaped in a form of grief and madness, carrying an abundance of pain; it was because of this that I was frequently engaged, wanting to explore more of the character, fascinated on the way he sees and reacts to certain things. Olivier does not hold back and lets the audience get in deep under the character's skin, allowing them to understand what he is going through and prevent him from being seen as villainous in his quest for revenge.
Though most of the film's characters in Hamlet were interesting enough to follow, I did however feel confused with Ophelia, as the film seems to push her as an important figure to the story, I wasn't able to understand or empathise with the character at all. There were moments in the film where she, let's just say, "did" something and I just sat there thinking why? This may not be a problem to those who have read the play and has some knowledge behind the intentions of the character, but since Olivier keeps most of it in Hamlet's perspective and shaping the characters around him through his perspective, I was left distant with Ophelia.
Henry V was a big achievement in its transition to cinema due to its usage of the lovely Technicolor, which enticed many of its viewers with the idea of Shakespeare's world popping to life with lively sets and blooming colors. This was one of the central reasons on why I thought Henry V was a beautiful directorial debut from Olivier. Hamlet seems to have achieved the opposite. What we have here is a black and white shot of a gloomy tale, supported with cramped and uneventful sets, and effects like smoke and shadow filling the entire frame. In choosing this approach, what Olivier actually achieved was something much more effective as it resonates strongly with the dire themes of its narrative, and it achieves this sense of simplicity without feeling too amateurish and instead coming off as artistic and profound. There was never a dull visual moment in Hamlet.
The performances in this film was a step-up from Olivier's previous film, but it also features more insightful characters that are allowed enough time to be fleshed out and become important to the viewing experience. First and foremost, Olivier is wonderful as Hamlet. He demonstrates a level of commitment that his other cast members are nowhere near of achieving, that being said, the supporting cast members are not terrible, they simply just were not as memorable or as extravagant as Olivier. Olivier did have the difficult task on being the lead for the film, which takes up about 90% of the film's overall story, and does this while providing direction to his cast and crew; I cannot help but be impressed with this as some would have cracked and have fallen short in a couple of instances, here the issues seem to have been kept at a minimum. There was one moment in the film that did give me a bit of shivers down my spine as it was happening, and it was the scene between Olivier and Eileen Herlie - who plays Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and they were confronting each other in Gertrude's bedroom, antagonising her of the sins she has committed. Herlie is a theatre actress and one could feel the intensity that one would expect from that profession into her performance in this film, it was one of the rare moments in the film where someone actually outshines Olivier; in short, it was a beautiful scene.
Hamlet may not be difficult for contemporary audiences due to its dated production and melodramatic tendencies, but for those who are able to place their mindset of an audience member during 1948 and see it for what it is; I can guarantee one would find themselves lost in Hamlet's dark and gloomy atmosphere.
It is argueably the most sought after role for any actor, and no doubt Olivier does a fantastic job. My favorite thing is that Olivier makes the characters seem relatable yet still stay true to the greatest playwright who ever lived.