Hamlet (1948)

hamlet poster 1948 movie laurence olivier
8.5 Overall Score
Story: 8/10
Acting: 9/10
Visuals: 8/10

Solid adaptation of the play

Cuts to the story, not my favorite Shakespeare

Movie Info

Movie Name:  Hamlet

Studio:  Two Cities Films

Genre(s):  Drama

Release Date(s):  May 6, 1948

MPAA Rating:  Not Rated

hamlet ghost laurence olivier

Jacob Marley?!?!

Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) is in mourning.  The king has died, and his mother Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) has married his uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney) who is now the king of Denmark.  When a spirit appears to Hamlet telling him of villainy, Hamlet begins his quest for revenge, but is Hamlet seeing the truth or is he descending into madness and bringing those around him into his fold.

Starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, Hamlet is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.  Previously doing Henry V in 1944, the Olivier’s film was the first speaking version of the play and won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor (Laurence Olivier), Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Black-and-White Costume Design with nominations for Best Director, Best Actress (Jean Simmons), and Best Original Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.  The Criterion Collection released a remastered version of the film (Criterion #82).

hamlet ophelia death jean simmons

Nice day for a swim!

While Hamlet is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays (or possibly his greatest), it has never been one of my favorites.  It’s long, Hamlet spends most of the story musing, and there are some really odd story choices.  I recognize why it is great, but I don’t enjoy it much.  Olivier plays up Hamlet’s madness which is potentially interesting, but also got him criticism.

With a play as long as Hamlet, there has to be cuts to fit it under three hours.  In this version Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are really dead (they aren’t mentioned) and the threat of Fortinbras really isn’t a thrust.  Hamlet’s relationship with his mother is boosted and that in addition to Hamlet’s sanity was noted by critics.  If you are tweaking the play, I always thought it would be interesting to do the play where Hamlet is completely mad…in that his uncle didn’t commit any crime and his attacks are misplaced due to mental state.

harmlet laurence olivier alas poor yorrick skull

Alas, poor Yorrick…

Laurence Olivier eats up the scenes as Hamlet and as a Shakespearian stage actor, you’d expect him to.  Eileen Herlie is good as his mother and Basil Sydney is solid as the uncle under attack.  Jean Simmons plays the scene stealing Ophelia and the film features a non-speaking role for Christopher Lee and a small roles for Patrick Troughton and Peter Cushing.

Adapting plays that were meant for a small round stage are tricky.  You can go all out with big sets and different locations or you can maintain the small, intimate nature of the stage.  Olivier tried a bit of both.  He combined some dramatic shooting of scenes with a smaller set, backdrops, and visuals that played with the set ideas.  It is a strange combinations that still gets nice visuals out of scenes like Ophelia’s death, the Hamlet’s modified play for the king, and visions of the ghost.

Though I’m not the biggest Hamlet fan, Olivier’s Hamlet is a solid production of the play.  Decisions to “edit” Shakespeare’s plays are always going to be controversial, but they are also necessary.  Olivier went on to do the film version of Richard III in 1955.

Author: JPRoscoe View all posts by
Follow me on Twitter/Instagram/Letterboxd @JPRoscoe76! Loves all things pop-culture especially if it has a bit of a counter-culture twist. Plays video games (basically from the start when a neighbor brought home an Atari 2600), comic loving (for almost 30 years), and a true critic of movies. Enjoys the art house but also isn't afraid to let in one or two popular movies at the same time.

Leave A Response