Most helpful positive review
25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on 14 September 2002
Olivier's film of Hamlet is not perfect, but it is unlikely to be excelled. No present-day director, of sufficient intellect or skill to match it, would want to try; and there is no living English-speaking actor with the physical presence, voice or mastery of Shakespeare's language to fill the role. Any apparently negative judgements here are made in the context of a standard so far unequalled. There is no point in discussing Olivier's cuts or re-arrangements of the text; his film is an entertainment, not an academic exercise, and anyone who is not a moron will be handsomely entertained. The pace is somewhat sedate, until the cathartic final bloodbath, but the ghost is gripping and effective enough from the start to engage the viewer with the action. There is a strongly Victorian, neo-Gothic feel to the magnificent staging and rich costumes, reinforced by deliberate emulation of Millais' 1852 painting of the drowning Ophelia. The costumes benefit from the black and white photography, avoiding the technicolour garishness which obtrudes in Olivier's later Richard III. Modern viewers may think Hamlet should show a rather more feverish and agitated distraction, but this is not a serious fault. What, then, are the major flaws? First, the introduction ("this is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind"), which is completely unnecessary, off-putting, and almost silly. It should be removed. Second, although the acting of the supporting players (especially Eileen Herlie, and including Jean Simmons, whose touchingly fragile Ophelia has sometimes been disparaged) is generally excellent, Terence Morgan as Laertes is weak and mechanical, particularly in the early scenes. He cuts a spirited figure in the duel, but is otherwise unconvincing. Perhaps his woodenness is partly intentional, since he is suspected of being but "the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart". Occasionally there is a sense that one or two other actors are also merely reciting the lines, without living them. The third, and most surprising failing, however, is in Olivier's delivery of "to be or not to be", the most famous soliloquy in English literature. This speech is a distillation of Hamlet's three preoccupations: the riddle of life and death, the legitimacy of revenge, and his perplexed sense of sexual frustration and disgust, which underpins the entire play. By treating the passage exclusively as a meditation on suicide, Olivier misses the opportunity of consolidating his fully justified Freudian interpretation of the drama, and virtually throws it away, symbolically dropping his bodkin into the troubled sea. But in spite of these criticisms I can't see any other actor/director bringing a fraction of the concentrated intelligence and stagecraft displayed in this production to the modern screen.