8 October 2005 | bkoganbing
That Legendary Melancholy Dane
With this film, Sir Laurence Olivier set the standard as to how Shakespeare should be done on screen. His direction of his handpicked cast was flawless and his own straightforward interpretation of Hamlet is the one everyone else's is measured by.
It was a straightforward interpretation because Shakespeare himself in the introduction says that Hamlet's tragedy is one in which his problem is that he couldn't make up his mind. Olivier opts for that and doesn't try to give any deeper meaning to Hamlet's indecision.
For those who've never read the play or have seen it or studied in school, Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. He's Hamlet Junior. His father Hamlet Senior was the king and the king has died. But at the beginning of the play, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father and the father tells him he was murdered by his brother Claudius. Claudius took the title and married Hamlet's mother Gertrude. All this was done while Hamlet was away at school in Wittemberg.
The ghost wants his son to revenge him, understandable enough. But the story is Hamlet deciding one thing and then another, moderating his course. His actions have everyone believing he's lost his mind. In the end it's tragedy all around.
I've always thought that the key thing to remember is that Hamlet is the only one who heard the ghost. Some other palace personnel told him about some apparition making an appearance on one of the battlements of Elsinore Castle, but Hamlet's the only one who's been told the tale. Therefore he's the only one who heard the story and he can't prove anything.
The device of spirits visiting Shakespearean protagonists is one the Bard used with great effect. Here, in MacBeth, in Julius Caesar, all of those visits meant someone was meeting their doom. But in Hamlet the ghost makes his appearance at the beginning of the play. Maybe if the ghost had revealed himself to Horatio, to Polonius, the Queen even, Hamlet's duty would have been clear.
In the supporting cast I liked Eileen Herlie as the Queen, Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, and most of all Terrence Morgan as Laertes.
Laertes is an important character here. He's the son of the chief counselor in the court, Polonius and brother of Ophelia who has a yen for Hamlet. In the beginning of the play Laertes takes off for France. Later towards the end he finds out the tragedy Hamlet has wrought upon both his father and his sister and Laertes has no trouble making up his mind what he's going to do. Quite a contrast to Hamlet's behavior.
The film is moodily photographed in black and white. Olivier wanted to use color, but J. Arthur Rank wouldn't spring for it. So he made due with black and white and the lights and shadows of Elsinore castle as shown almost make this version a kind of Shakespeare noir.
I don't think subsequent versions with Nicol Williamson and Mel Gibson hold a candle to this one.