Hamlet (1948)



He’s totally about to make out with that skull.

As I mentioned in my last post, I got the chance to tour the Globe Theater in London last summer. One feature in the museum portion was a series of audio clips from famous performances so that you could get a sense of how different actors throughout history (audio-recorded history, anyway) performed some of the most familiar soliloquies. I wish now that I’d spent more time in that section, but it appeared close to the end, and there was a group of teenagers hanging around and I was probably hangry, so I only gave it a cursory listen and moved on. I’m sure Laurence Olivier’s “To be or not to be” speech was included, against other famous versions on film and stage. It’s such a neat comparison to make, and it’s too bad we can’t hear how actors read lines in Elizabethan times.

I’ve always liked Shakespeare – but maybe not loved him. At the risk of sounding dumb, I’ve never been great at parsing and comprehending the language. On the plus side, that means that each time I read or watch a play I’m already familiar with, I notice something that went over my head the last time. But then, what if the way Shakespeare writes was just how everybody talked back then? All their conversations just played out in perfect iambic pentameter, with clever use of metaphor. Maybe we’ve been giving ol’ Willy too much credit.

Hamlet is one of those plays that I think have the basic storyline down pat at this point, but even after a several readings, and probably several performances, I am still fuzzy on certain subplots. Like, for example, Ophelia and Laertes and, why not, Polonius. What’s their deal? I would probably have a better understanding if I hadn’t dosed off a couple of times during this film. I mean, honestly. It’s in black and white, and quiet as hell, full of murmuring in a not-quite-foreign language.

Olivier’s Hamlet starts out with this portentous voiceover: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” Which somehow comes off as a bit heavy-handed or awkward. Why didn’t Shakespeare use that in his subtitle? The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who was Indecisive (Get it?). There are a few places where he made creative use of voiceover and condensing to get the film under three hours – and for that, I thank him. But in the process, we lose everyone’s favorite pair of minor characters that later get their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. <gasp!>

One of my old friends from MFA school used to talk about writing a story concerning what happened to Hamlet during the interlude where he gets hijacked by a pirate ship on his way to England and then just rolls with them for a while, NBD. I still think that’s an awesome idea. Pirates were basically the superheroes of the 1600s. Throw a few in your play and you’ve got a guaranteed blockbuster.

Although it wasn’t the most exciting movie, I did really like the setting of this Hamlet. It actually takes place in a castle, full of winding steps and bleak seascapes. I actually believed they’d found some medieval castle on the coast of England or something, but that would be too perfect; the movie seems to have been filmed only in studios (according to IMDB). One odd quirk of women in film is that Olivier, at the time of filming, was 41 years old, and Eileen Herlie, who plays Queen Gertrude, was 30. Curious, and maybe also explains why Hamlet makes out with his mom so much here.

This is the only Shakespeare adaptation that has won Best Picture. I haven’t looked it up, but I suspect other versions have earned actors and actresses a win for particular roles (including Olivier, for his only Best Actor Oscar win – pay attention, trivia nerds). I suppose Shakespeare is the gold standard of acting, but most of us would still rather watch something a little easier to understand, and maybe with more pirates.


Theme: Shakespeare

First Time Watching? Yes, at least this particular version of the play.

Final Verdict: Ay, there’s the rub.