Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet (1948) ****

Visually stunning, Laurence Olivier’s near-flawless adaptation of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece is mostly true to the original script, suffering only slightly in the casting of Jean Simmons as Ophelia. But that trifle complaint aside, there’s really not much to dislike about Olivier’s performances behind and before the camera. The lighting is a particular treat, owing a lot to Olivier’s rival Orson Welles and his Citizen Kane seven years prior. The angular sets make for very stark, imposing scenes whether highlighting Hamlet’s barely contained rage, or juxtaposing it with his “put-on” madness.

Was Hamlet mad? Olivier’s definitive portrayal seems to indicate so. My impression from watching the master is that Hamlet was not, then pretended he was, then was. A lesser thespian would have come across as wholly hammy, moving among degrees of sanity, but Olivier’s perfect work here is heavily nuanced; each syllable is both deliberate and soulful, a tough combination to find.

The rest of the cast is a marvel, although Simmons seemed a bit out of her depth. Still, as with Hamlet in the play, Olivier is all the show you need here. Watch for Peter Cushing as Osric, Stanley Holloway as the Gravedigger, and an unbilled Christopher Lee as a spearman.

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