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Tag Archives: Felix Aylmer

Hamlet (May 4, 1948)

Hamlet
Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Two Cities Films / Universal Pictures

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet dominated the 21st Academy Awards with seven nominations and four wins. (Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda was nominated in 12 categories — more than any other picture — but only won a single Oscar.)

It was the first time a non-Hollywood production won an Oscar for best picture, and it was the first time an Oscar for best actor was given to an actor who had directed himself. (Besides best picture and best actor, Hamlet also won Oscars for best costume design in a black and white picture and best art direction in a black and white picture.)

These accolades represented something of a vindication for Olivier, whose previous film, Henry V (1944), was nominated for best picture and best actor Oscars (among others), but only received a special Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen,” which Olivier considered “a fob-off.”

Well, sometimes great works require big egos, and Hamlet is proof. It’s a dark, expressionistic psychodrama and a deeply satisfying cinematic achievement, which is no small feat for a film based on a play by William Shakespeare. While Shakespeare is an unassailable and towering figure in English literature, I don’t find most films based on his plays very satisfying. They either treat his texts with stodgy reverence or go off the deep end with ridiculous costumes and set pieces that seem designed to draw in viewers who find Shakespeare “boring.”

Olivier’s Technicolor production of Henry V played around with artifice, beginning by showing the inner workings of a stage play complete with shots of the actors backstage waiting for their cues and slowly became more realistic, culminating in the battle of Agincourt, which was filmed outdoors.

Hamlet, on the other hand, establishes its moody, black and white world with the opening shots and stays the course. Olivier’s camera moves in a lissome fashion around his fog-shrouded castle set, which is a hulking, brooding character unto itself, towering over a dark, roiling sea. The dialogue and the movement of the actors are treated as realistically as possible. Monologues are not delivered in a theatrical fashion toward the audience, but in voiceover as the actor silently broods.

Hamlet was mostly a success with the critics, but Shakespeare purists took umbrage at Olivier’s tinkering with the text, since he cut out roughly half the play, losing whole characters in the process.

There were numerous minor cuts, too, as the very first moments of the film demonstrate. Olivier’s Hamlet begins with the lines from Act 1, Scene 4, that precede the appearance of the ghost. They appear onscreen and are spoken by the narrator. Olivier excised certain lines, which I’ve shown below as crossed-out text:

So oft it chances in particular men
That for some vicious mole of nature in them—
As in their birth (wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin),

By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that [grown] too much o’erleavens
The form of plausive manners—
that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery or fortune’s star,
Their virtues else (be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo)
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault.

The demands of cinema are different from the demands of the stage, and I find these edits sensible and pleasing. However … and this is a big “however” … Oliver ends his prologue with the following line of spoken dialogue, which does not appear in text on screen, but is spoken by the same narrator, and could easily be mistaken for more of Shakespeare’s writing by the unschooled: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

To me this seems like pandering, but I suppose it helps to have a “mission statement” for the more thick-headed among us in the audience.

And this is indeed the story of a young man crippled by indecision. By removing all of the political aspects of Hamlet (the character Fortinbras, for instance, is excised completely and is never mentioned), it becomes a character study. For 20th century audiences I think this was the enduring view of Hamlet, and the aspect people found most interesting. Modern audiences probably miss most of the political undertones of the play, which was written at the tail end of the 16th century, when the age of chivalry was dying and the age of global empire was beginning with the creation of the East India Company. Surely Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw aspects of their own time in the tale of a slain king, a usurper on the throne, and a young prince dealing poorly with political realities.

Even in its edited form, Olivier’s Hamlet runs for a little more than two and a half hours. There simply would have been no way to film the entire play and end up with a commercially successful film. (When Kenneth Branagh filmed a complete version of Hamlet in 1996 it clocked in at 242 minutes and was not widely released theatrically. The cut version was 150 minutes.)

If you can stomach an edited Bard, Olivier’s Hamlet stands as one of the best cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare. The cast are all good, including Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Basil Sydney as Claudia, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and Terence Morgan as Laertes. But the real star is Olivier, both in front of and behind the camera.

Henry V (June 17, 1946)

Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Shakespeare’s history play Henry V was originally released in the United Kingdom in November of 1944. (The date I’ve listed above is the release date of the film in the United States.) Following its release in the United States, Henry V was nominated for a 1946 Oscar for best picture, as well as Oscars for best actor, best score, and best art direction. It didn’t win in any of its nominated categories, but Olivier did receive an honorary Academy Award “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer, and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

The recognition was well deserved (even though Olivier considered the award a “fob-off” from a jingoistic Academy). This film is a splendid achievement, and holds up remarkably well. Not only is it a fine cinematic adaptation of a great play, it’s a beautifully crafted film within a play within a film, in which Olivier the director has fun with convention while Olivier the actor delivers an assured and commanding performance as Henry, only recently a monarch after a misspent youth (chronicled by Shakespeare in Henry IV parts one and two).

The film’s full title is “The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift With His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France,” and that’s how the title appears on the opening placard, which invites people to attend “Will” Shakespeare’s play, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at the Globe Playhouse this day, the first of May, 1600. There follows a panoramic vista in gorgeous, nearly surreal Technicolor of the London of Shakespeare’s day. It’s obviously a model, but it’s an effective one, with wisps of smoke rising from chimneys and tiny vessels dotting the Thames.

The beginning of the film attempts to faithfully recreate the theatrical experience one would have had at the Globe during Shakespeare’s time. There are no set dressings, and the Chorus (Leslie Banks), in each of his appearances, invites the viewer to suspend his or her disbelief, vividly describing the scene that is about to be played, and in so doing draws attention to the artifice of the play. As the film goes on, however, it moves out of the confines of the theater and becomes increasingly realistic, reaching its apex when Henry finally leads his troops in battle against the French at Agincourt.

Artifice and realism aren’t strictly delineated in Henry V, however. When the film first moves out of the theater to the court of France, the ocean is a static sea of waves that looks like the backdrop for a puppet show in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. And after the impressive battle, which was filmed in County Wicklow, Ireland (as a neutral country, it wasn’t ravaged by the war), artifice slowly returns in the form of phony-looking backdrops and a return to the stagey castle set of the French court.

When Olivier first appears on screen, it is as Oliver the actor, standing backstage in full costume, waiting for his entrance cue, and coughing into his hand in a decidedly unheroic fashion. As soon as he steps on stage, however, his voice commands attention. By the time he delivers his famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech, I was eating out of his hand. This is no mean feat, either, considering the historically accurate haircut Olivier saddled himself with, as well as his very noticeable eye makeup.

It’s common knowledge that Henry V was made with the cooperation of the British government and designed to be a nationalistic morale booster in the days following the Allied push into Normandy. Consequently, the scene in which Henry threatens to rape women and kill children was excised from the script, along with the hanging of Bardolph and Henry’s order to kill French prisoners. But it’s all in keeping with the tone of the film, which is more a celebration of theater and patriotism than it is a nuanced character study.

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