This is picture-making at its best, and its showing must be done with the dignity it deserves. Exhibs should profit from the handling of “Henry V” and should be warned that Hamlet is rich in qualities that don’t readily blend with the usual ballyhoo. At a cost of $2,000,000 it seems incredibly cheap compared with some of the ephemeral trash that is being turned out, and it will earn profit as well as prestige for its makers.
Star-producer-director Laurence Olivier was the driving force behind the whole venture. His confidence and energy infected those around him and resulted in the teamwork which has produced one of the most memorable films ever to come from a British studio. Minor characters and a good deal of verse have been thrown overboard, and a four-and-a-quarter hour play becomes a two-and-a-half hour film. But this speeding and tightening has in no way impaired the artistic integrity of the play.
Pundits may argue that Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras shouldn’t have been sacrificed, and that many familiar gems are missing. They will argue about the bewildering crossing and inter-crossing of motives. Scholars may complain that this isn’t Hamlet as Shakespeare created him, but one that Olivier has made in his own image. The multitude of questions will remain unanswered, but that won’t prevent audiences from getting maximum enjoyment and an appreciation of a story that hitherto may have been obscure to millions.
In his interpretation of Hamlet, Olivier thinks of him as nearly a great man, damned, as most people are, by lack of resolution. He announces it in a spoken foreword as “the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” Olivier’s “Hamlet” isn’t in a class apart. He’s neither a petulant poppycock nor a moody Dane suffering from an Oedipus complex. His dreams, his thoughts, his eternal questioning to which he can find no answer, are a natural part of the sensitive, educated man Olivier makes him.
Stage performances of “Hamlet” invariably succeed or fail on the interpretation of the title part, but this film — although naturally dominated by Olivier — will also be judged as a whole, and not merely on the star’s great performance. Every character has been cast with meticulous care and for the most part the company of trained dramatic stage actors, with a capacity for wearing costume to the manner born, gives a perfect performance
Special praise is due Eileen Herlie for her playing of the Queen. She has made the character really live. Her love for her son, the consciousness of evil-doing, her grief and agony, her death – made by Olivier to appear as sacrificing herself for Hamlet – make her a very memorable, pitiful figure. It was an experiment to cast Jean Simmons as Ophelia. This part, about which critics have wrangled for years, will still give cause for argument, but she does bring to the role a sensitive, impressionable innocence, perhaps too childlike.
Basil Sydney repeats his stage success as the King, of whom ambition and lust have taken possession, and rises to his greatest height in his soliloquy trying to pray and seeing himself accursed like Cain. Felix Aylmer is a tremendous Polonius, giving true value to his famous verses, and embodying the perfect busybody. As Laertes, Terence Morgan is the complete foil to Olivier’s Hamlet; Norman Wooland is understandably Hamlet’s best friend; Harcourt Williams represents the First Player as though in need of Hamlet’s advice, and Stanley Holloway makes the Gravedigger human and humorous. Utterances of the Ghost are at times unintelligible.
Olivier conception of “Hamlet” as an engraving has been beautifully executed by Roger Furse and Carmen Dillon. Sets have been planned as abstractions and so serve to point the timelessness of the period. The story takes place anytime in the remote past. This conception has dominated the lighting and camera work and has made the deep-focus photography an outstanding feature of the film.
With no use for the static camera, Olivier has aimed for speed and action. The final duel scene is a masterpiece of production. The famous soliloquies — most of the lines represented as thoughts, here and there a line actually spoken — are spoken in movement. With bold use of crane shots Olivier moves the action about ancient Elsinore with technical skill. Everything was done in the Denham studios. Elsinore Castle was there, Ophelia died in the tiny stream of the studio grounds, yet the keynote is always grandeur and spaciousness.
Music of William Walton for his third Shakespearean film (“As You Like It,” “Henry V”) is inspired and dramatic, and always in sympathy with the story. He’s made an integral contribution to the film.
1948: Best Motion Picture (J. Arthur Rank-Two Cities Films), Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Art Direction (Black-and-White) Art: Roger K. Furse; Set: Carmen Dillon, Costime Design (Black-and-White) Roger K. Furse
Nominations: Actress in a Supporting Role (Jean Simmons), Directing (Laurence Olivier), Music (Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture) William Walton