In the opening scene of Hamlet
, Laurence Olivier describes the play in a voice-over as "the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind". But Olivier's screen adaptation is considerably more thoughtful and complex than this thesis would suggest. The contradictions and ambiguities of the title character, who prowls cavernous sets filled with vast, ancient corridors and winding staircases, emerge as if from a dream. The plethora of tracking shots--precise enough to impress Stanley Kubrick--encircle Olivier and his tightly constructed geometry of demise. Drawing on his experience playing the Prince on stage at Elsinore in 1937, the legendary thesp provides the film with the patina of greatness and shows how the constitution of the formerly cheerful Prince weakens increasingly under the burden of his own thoughts and inability to accept his mother's o'er-hasty marriage to uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney). Indeed, if emotions could possess ghosts, Olivier's Hamlet
shows how they would manifest themselves. There is even a dollop of Freud, suggesting that Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) has perhaps loved her offspring too closely--thus providing the fuel for Hamlet's actions. As Ophelia, Jeans Simmons captures the character's early spirit better than her gradual disintegration (Helena Bonham Carter fares better in Franco Zeffirelli's fine 1990 remake). Purists may bemoan the loss of Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but these choices allow Olivier to focus more squarely on Hamlet's plight. His monologues, many held in secret enclaves, glow with the dramatic markedness of a Dostoevski novel, with all of the master's irony, allusions and witticisms in place. The winner of four Oscars (Best Picture, Actor, Art Direction, and Costumes), this is a Hamlet
for the ages. The rest is silence. --Kevin Mulhall
Laurence Olivier directs and stars in this adaptation of Shakespeare's famous tragedy. Hamlet (Olivier), Prince of Denmark, is still mourning over the death of his father and his mother Gertrude's (Eileen Herlie) subsequent remarriage to Hamlet's despised uncle, Claudius (Basil Sydney), who is now King. When his father's ghost appears to Hamlet and reveals that it was Claudius who murdered him, the young prince vows revenge. However, a fatal flaw in his character - hesitation - mars his efforts, resulting in murder, madness and treachery. The film won five Oscars, including Best Actor for Olivier (who was also nominated for Best Director) and Best Film.