There are lots of versions of Hamlet. Kenneth Branagh starred in one; so did Ethan Hawke. David Tennant and Patrick Stewart did an excellent Hamlet onstage a few years ago that was made into a Masterpiece Theatre production. Even Mel Gibson has played Hamlet. And those were all made in the last twenty years or so. There are so many others. Why is Hamlet so popular? I’m guessing because it’s a great story. It’s so psychologically dramatic, and it has the potential to have some really great moments. I like Hamlet. I like Shakespeare in general. I think there’s a reason why his plays have been celebrated for the past 400 years. And yet, I found this production dull. It has all the ingredients for greatness, but it somehow misses the mark.
So what’s the story? Prince Hamlet is depressed and reeling. His father died not long ago, and his mother is already remarried—to Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, his father’s brother. It only gets worse when the ghost of his father appears and tells Hamlet that he didn’t die of natural causes; Claudius murdered him. Hamlet’s father gives Hamlet a mission – avenge his death.
The Good: The acting is excellent. I’m guessing (because I haven’t done the research) that many of the actors and actresses were well-trained stage actors. They all do a wonderful job. Laurence Olivier has some good moments as Hamlet. Jean Simmons does crazy beautifully as Ophelia. Felix Aylmer is appropriately stuffy and self-important as Polonius. Eileen Herlie shows sorrow, remorse, and confusion as Queen Gertrude. Norman Wooland is a sensitive Horatio. Plus this movie has nerd cred. Patrick Troughton (aka the Second Doctor), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin and Doctor Who), and Christopher Lee (Saruman and Count Dukoo) all have small roles. It’s kind of fun to pick them out.
The costumes are beautifully sumptuous. It’s almost enough to make me want to be a noble in Denmark in the Middle Ages. (Or at least in Laurence Olivier’s Middle Ages. Because I’m not sure on the accuracy of the costumes. But they are gorgeous.)
The Bad: In all the other versions of Hamlet I have seen, the filmmakers take advantage of the fact that they although they are making a movie based on play, they don’t have the constraints of a play; they don’t have to shoot on a stage, but can move outside or shoot on location or do anything their imagination tells them to do. In this Hamlet, I felt like I was always looking at a stage set. It wasn’t particularly impressive.
I will probably never say this about a movie again, but it needed more music. I’m usually a fan of restraint in movie soundtracks, but I think more music would have helped it feel less stark and dull. Don’t get me wrong; the music itself isn’t bad. It’s quite good, in fact, but there should have been more to help the movie along.
While Laurence Olivier is a great actor, and he did a marvelous job in the role, I feel like he was too old to make a convincing Hamlet at that point in his life. It might have worked on stage where the audience doesn’t get any close-up views of him, but his age shows in the film. Also, he does not make a convincing blond.
The Ugly: It is so boring. I can’t put my finger on what makes it that way, but I had to rewind at least five times because I kept falling asleep. I wasn’t mentally captivated by this film. It was a fine film, but it didn’t stand out in a particularly memorable way.
Oscars Won: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Laurence Olivier); best art direction-set decoration, black-and-white; best costume design, black-and-white.
Other Oscar Nominations: Best actress in a supporting role (Jean Simmons); best director; best music, scoring of a dramatic or comedy picture.
Fun fact: I didn’t plan it this way, but today is actually Laurence Olivier’s birthday. Happy 108th birthday, Mr. Olivier!