Laurence Olivier – “Hamlet” (1948)

Actor and director with an already substantial theatrical career, Laurence Olivier can also be proud of prestigious roles in the cinema (he shot for William Wyler in The Wuthering Heights and for Alfred Hitchcock in Rebecca) when he decides to go behind the camera. In 1944, he signed an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play, Henry V. The reception was very favorable and the novice filmmaker even received an honorary Oscar for his triple performance as actor, director and producer of the film. It was enough for him to continue on this path and shoot, four years later, Hamletbefore finally concluding his trilogy in 1955 with Richard III. For this second part, the success is still there since he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival in 1948, and triumphed at the Baftas, the Golden Globes and the Oscars, where he received four statuettes. The feature film places Olivier among the inseparable names of Shakespearian transpositions to the cinema, for better and for worse, some not failing to point the finger at an academicism and an overly pronounced respect for the original material. Almost eighty years after its release, it’s time to take a look at this work, which is now being honored by Rimini Editions, which offers the first Blu-Ray available in our latitudes, accompanied by enlightening supplements.

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The choice ofHamlet as a second achievement is not insignificant. The play, one of the most famous of the Elizabethan author, and especially its main character, are a real fantasy for any actor. In his fascinating interview, presented as a bonus, the professor of British civilization, Pierre Kapitaniak, goes into detail on the importance of this story. From his Viking roots (a 13th century chronicle brought to the screen in The Northman) to its first silent film adaptation shot in Sweden and carried by an actress, it reviews all the facets of this essential figure. In 1991, Mel Gibson will go so far as to found his own production company, Icon, in order to finance the adaptation of Franco Zeffirelli in which he plays the Prince of Denmark. The same megalomaniac dream seems to guide Laurence Olivier. Although he was forty years old at the time of filming, he chose to portray the young hero himself. A decision that could quickly turn grotesque, especially since Eileen Herlie, who plays her mother, Queen Gertrude, is barely thirty years old, if the latter’s talent did not irrigate the long – footage. Although encased in somewhat outdated game codes, this one manages to make a complex character exist, not by treating him from the point of view of his quest for revenge, but rather through his progressive dementia. The filmmaker even chooses to interpret the voice of the ghost of the king himself, thus illustrating the schizophrenia of his protagonist, a feeling reinforced by the numerous soliloquies, here changed into interior monologues. At the height of this process, the camera literally penetrates Hamlet’s skull when he declaims his cult tirade, “To be or not to be…”. A desire to probe his mind which obviously places the actor at the center of all his own attention as a director. Olivier even allows himself an amusing mise en abyme and fully assumes his roots when the prince leads a theater troupe in order to update the horrible truth.

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Copyright Rimini Editions – 2022

It is undeniable that the artistic choices of the filmmaker remain, in many aspects, too dependent on his experience on the boards. If he takes a few liberties with the original play, whether he shifts the action to a sixteenth century contemporary with Shakespeare, or whether he removes three essential characters (Guildenstern, Rosencrantz and Fortinbras), he remains extremely faithful to the words of the author and remains too locked into theatrical codes. It delimits, for example, each of the sequences by entries and exits of the actor. In a troupe spirit, he surrounds himself with emerging actors such as Peter Cushing, very funny in Osric, Patrick Macnee (who shot the previous year in a television adaptation ofHamlet) or even Christopher Lee, in one of his first screen appearances. The shackles imposed by this allegiance to conventions nevertheless find a meaningful illustration. The decors without depth, sometimes symbolized by roughly painted landscapes, reflect the madness at work. The fog enclosing the citadel, a simplistic special effect inherited from the theatre, acts as a materialization of the protagonist’s loss of bearings and the final shot, in Chinese shadow, closes the curtain on the tragedy that has just ended. The castle is revealed outside the world, like a mental space “full of sound and fury” where souls and spirits come to run aground. Relying on the talent of its cinematographer Desmond Dickinson (in the photo on The Berlin Man by Carol Reed, among others), Olivier nevertheless makes this closed place a field of often striking formal experimentation.

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Copyright Rimini Editions – 2022

Although the staging remains pegged to theatrical roots, the camera seems to free itself from it, even if it means sometimes bordering on the demonstration of a little vain virtuosity, a defect that we find in one of Laurence’s heirs Olivier, namely Kenneth Branagh. Between zenithal planes and multiplication of crane movements, the realization seems to want to detach itself from any stasis. The pictorial references are also legion, from the introductory credits referring to Isle of the Dead from Böcklin, to the architectures and play on perspectives inherited from Escher, passing through the inevitable death of Ophelia, an echo of Millais’ painting. The latter, played by the talented Jean Simmons (The Black Narcissus) which had been preferred to Vivien Leigh, companion of the filmmaker, considered too famous by the latter, is at the center of the most beautiful moments of the film. The long tracking shot that follows her through the corridors or this way of turning the young girl into a wandering ghost are the most striking examples of this. Always on the border between the fantastic and the supernatural, the feature film wisely chooses to make dialogues with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, sequences worthy of the Gothic tradition. A simple tower surrounded by mist, a zoom advancing on the face of the prince to the rhythm of the beats of his heart and a vague silhouette are enough to generate dread and tip the whole thing into a morbid aesthetic. During a highly symbolic shot, a skull is even superimposed on the shadow of the prince, foreshadowing the outcome of his quest. At the turn of a key sequence, where a long movement of the camera embraces the entire audience, Olivier even pays a superb tribute to silent cinema, and conveys emotion without having recourse to the slightest dialogue. While the film may seem dated in many ways, there’s no denying that its interpretation and aesthetic biases make itHamlet a major work, which many have sought to equal, in vain. Rimini Editions now makes it possible to rediscover it in the best possible conditions, offering a 100-page booklet by Sarah Hatchuel, professor of cinematographic and audiovisual studies, and an interview lasting almost an hour with the academic Pierre Kapitaniak. The latter replaces the context of the play in Shakespeare’s career and discusses in detail the figure of ghosts in the author. An essential object and a new success for the publisher.

Available as a Blu-Ray / DVD mediabook from Rimini Editions.

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Laurence Olivier – “Hamlet” (1948)