HAMLET (1948)

Amleto48-01Neither of us is a theater expert by any stretch, but we both have a deep enough love of literature and high school English to have some familiarity with Hamlet. I was excited to see Laurence Olivier play this role of a lifetime. Such themes! Family, loyalty, passionate, madness, death. It’s remarkable how many lines from this play have entered the public lexicon.

This film kept my interest. In particular, I loved the hue in which it was shot. Very gray, shadowy, heavy. The mood was set from the first moment because the characters move around in shadows. Olivier plays an exceptional Hamlet; tortured, haunted, torn on the path he should take. I was however not convinced that the actress cast as the Queen could really be his mother. Olivier, though definitely suited for this role of a lifetime, did not look nearly young enough to be her son. I suspended disbelief, though, because he had the kind of gravitas an actor needs to carry this role.

And now I confess a shameful secret. I’d neither read Hamlet, nor seen it performed in entirety. How is it that in my 36 years I had never experienced the marquee work of English language drama? Is this the sort of thing that distinguishes the intellectual from the pseudo-intellectual? Unlike poor Lady MacBeth, however, my shame could be washed away. And my soap was Netflix.

I think this one needs no plot summary. If need be, The Simpsons’ parody episode will do a good job bringing you up to speed in 6 minutes. Anyway, the point of adaptations of classical works isn’t the novelty of the plot, but in the telling itself. Like a jazz band taking on a well worn Cole Porter song, we know the tune, but can they swing it well enough to make it worth hearing again?

This is a movie, but it carries on with some conventions more at home on the stage. Olivier was about forty when this was filmed, definitely not the youth he was portraying. Compounding this was the fact that Eileen Herlie, his on-screen mother, was more than a decade younger than him. This is a movie, Sir Laurence, not a stage play, and we’re going to notice if your mother is a younger woman than you. Tolerance for this sort of thing is going to vary from view to viewer. Fortunately, other artistic decisions enhanced the transfer of the story to film. I agree, the low-key lighting was superb and every bit fitting to this story of homicide, revenge and depression. The underlit backgrounds in the castle not only enhance the tone, but also underscore the shadowy lives of the characters, each one hiding a secret deed or intention. Sometimes the light is so harsh, parts of characters’ faces are lost to shadow, rendering them hollow and skull-like. What is Hamlet if not Elizabethan noir? I almost feel like I’d be willing to live with the anachronism to see Venetian blinds throw shadows across someone’s face near the castle window. Soliloquies, presumably the characters’ inner thoughts, are delivered by voiceover, sometimes punctuated by lines spoken on screen, seeming something like Hamlet having a conversation with himself – or perhaps an argument, in line with his conflicted psyche.

I was really happy that Mouse showed me the Simpsons’ Hamlet. Particularly because I had talked to him a bit about Ophelia, and how she has been referenced in works around adolescent girls. There is Reviving Ophelia, Ophelia Speaks – a true slate of texts on saving the selves and souls of young women. However, I loved Lisa Simpson’s version. When Lisa Hamlet, played by Bart, going full-on “mad,” she mumbles to herself that no one will out-crazy Ophelia and dives promptly into the river. Watching the Olivier version of Hamlet, I did feel as if the two were in fact that perfect couple – each driven to insanity by the untimely and unjust loss of their fathers.

In no way do I wish to make light of the pain that Ophelia seems to suffer, by the way. In fact, I kept focusing on her character and her plight living in that castle. It wasn’t as if she had a range of love interests besides Hamlet to choose from. What if the entire story was told from her perspective? I would find that re-telling interesting, if done right. I was enraged at Hamlet when he became violent and cold towards her after all of his lovesick letters, and thought that alone would have been sufficient to push her over the edge. There are so many images we see in art of her floating down the river, and it is devastating – because she destroys herself at the loss of others. I think that’s why her story is connected to these 90s and 00s books about teen girls and self-esteem – it’s connected to the idea that young women put everyone else around them before themselves. In essence, the book Ophelia Speaks calls on teenage girls to write their own stories about how they survived difficult situations. I wish Ophelia had, too. Might have been quite a different ending.

Poor Ophelia. It really was just like Jamie Lee Curtis said. At first I had a hard time buying her character’s development. I feel like writers before modern psychology used  “madness” as an easy fictional device, as if every person has a switch inside them just waiting to get tripped that turns them into a lunatic. Then I thought more about the story from her perspective- particularly as a young woman in a medieval royal court. Presumably she’s very young, probably just a teenager, and I thought about the stress reactions that young people have.

Supposedly the play Hamlet, with all dialogue performs, runs to something like four hours. In almost all film adaptations, there is some editing to the text (exception: Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film). This version omits the invading army led by Fortinbras. Perhaps in 1948, Britain had had enough thinking about war and impending invasion. It also omits, disappointingly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the prince’s ill-fated friends. I say disappointingly because I’ve always been intrigued by the concept behind the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and I’ve always wanted to be let in on the joke.

Hamlet had a decent showing on awards night. Sir Laurence took home an Oscar for his performance. As he was in England, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. accepted the award for him. The movie also won awards for Costume Design and Art Direction-Set Decoration. It was a breakthrough night for Britain at the Academy Awards, along with Hamlet, The Red Shoes won six awards.

Now that we’ve seen the on-screen version, I want to get back into a theater to see actors perform this great work live. I enjoyed this very much, and like an old Rancid album, I strangely knew many of the words without any clue how they’d lodged into my brain. The ending is so intensely laden with loss as to come across as almost laughable – a tragi-comedy of sorts. It was best capped off with a viewing of the Simpsons version – along with a heated discussion of the comparable elements between The Lion King and Hamlet. Thankfully Nala has a great deal more resilience than Ophelia. And that warthog and meerkat seem far less dastardly than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But you never know…

Also nominated in 1948:
Johnny Belinda
The Red Shoes
The Snake Pit
The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre

Next film: IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967)



2 Responses to “HAMLET (1948)”

  1. Of all the films nominated I’ve only seen The Red Shoes and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Both of which are absolutely great (I particulary love the latter film) and both deal with major characters losing their grip on reality. I’ve never seen The Snake Pit in it’s entirety but I understand it is about a woman who has also suffered a mental breakdown and finds herself in an asylum at the start of the film. Just thought it was interesting that key to all of the plots of the majority of nominees that year were characters with deteriorating mental states.

  2. cdascher Says:

    Yeah Alan, I think this was the golden age of psychoanalysis, I guess people were really into craziness as a concept. I need to see Sierra Madre sometime.

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