Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Hamlet (1948)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at  Yeah, I know, the 2021 Oscar ceremony has come and gone, but dammit, I'm gonna try and keep the Oscar spirit alive all the year.  Keep it, but you don't keep it!

Today's film is the classic 1948 adaptation of Hamlet, directed by, produced by, adapted for the screen by, and starring the legendary Sir Laurence Olivier.  He was quite the multi-talented fellow, that Olivier.  This film version was commercially successful on its release and won a slew of awards, not least of which were its four Academy Award triumphs, including Best Picture and Best Actor.  Olivier took Shakespeare's dense, four-hour opus and whittled it down to a manageable 155 minutes, cutting out a few major beats and supporting characters such as everyone's favorite pair of bumbling fools, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The changes proved somewhat controversial among purists, but what can you do, the play's four freakin' hours long.  

Olivier plays the lead character as a very psychologically troubled but often scampish young man, not unlike the way an unhappy teenager would act.  I always find it strange how often the young student Hamlet is played by 30- and 40-somethings; here the 40-year-old Olivier is eleven years the senior of Eileen Herlie, who plays Hamlet's mother Gertrude.  Perhaps a more experienced actor tends to find the character's many nuances more easily than would a fresh-faced 20-year-old.  Nonetheless, Olivier gives a very strong performance here, brooding without being mopey, commanding the screen without bravado.  Olivier also stood in as the ghost of Hamlet's father, recording his lines in a whisper and slowing down the tape to produce a lugubrious, ethereal quality in the ghost's voice.  
Visually the film takes cues from the film noir genre, the understated sets bathed in intense lights and shadows.  As a sucker for this sensibility in black and white films I found no shortage of interesting visuals here.  Coincidentally Oliver's Hamlet was released the same year as Orson Welles' Macbeth adaptation, which was also of a heavily expressionistic bent.  For the record I think I slightly prefer the Welles film, despite its budgetary constraints (It was shot on minimalist sets left over from Westerns and all the dialogue was pre-recorded).  But Olivier does show real flair behind the camera, capturing an ominous, rather oppressive feel in translating Shakespeare's most famous tragedy.  

In terms of scripting I found Olivier's screenplay easier to follow than most Shakespeare fare.  I'm sure that's in part due to my being eminently familiar with the story, moreso than his other plays, but it seemed that Olivier was able to preserve the poetry of the original language while making slight adjustments to keep the dialogue easily relatable.  Similarly his running time trims kept the story moving along and made the film feel suitably epic without dragging.

The prodigious actor/director/producer/screenwriter, his solid supporting cast, and his capable crew assembled a fine Hamlet adaptation that garnered more critical praise and awards than perhaps any other filmed Shakespeare work.  The film is well-acted, visually rich, and suitably moody.

I give Hamlet ***1/2 out of ****.

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