Posted in First Take

[1948.5] Hamlet

I will be watching all 5 nominees from 1948 before I move on to the next year. The goal here is to watch them and have an internal discussion among them to try to piece together a “history” of the year. Let’s get to it. 

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you brooding Dane.

The real question is what did Sir Laurence Olivier do with Shakespeare’s four-centuries-old masterpiece? Some – casual viewers – saw the silkiest, leanest interpretation of the play. Others – purists – saw Olivier cutting the play into parts convenient and cried heresy. “Anyone who’s ever heard of or seen any production of Hamlet” – the completion of the pie – saw the Shakespeare by accident, or for school or for a blog post and recognized Olivier’s genius for drama, without consideration for the interpretation or for the heretics. In Hamlet, our titular character too often acts too singularly overwrought and too blatantly standoffish to show the true brood as a character of such complexity. Olivier, for luck or for skill, both wrote and acted his Hamlet perhaps as close to Shakespeare’s original fabric.

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you grand inquisitor.

Olivier plays Hamlet as a deft, cunning, impressionable, passionate, capable young prince, not out for revenge or justice, but rather out of sheer boredom. Never is there urgency to his actions, even with directive from his father and strange confession through a play-within-a-play. Olivier’s Hamlet seems content to allow this story to play out quite literally among the court with no true directive, self or not. He feigns madness to…throw his uncle (the new king) and his uncle’s advisor (the “cunning” Polonius, who’s a fool in disguise) convincingly enough to actually drive Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter and love…interest?) mad. For Hamlet the decision to play “mad,” is a simple and inconsequential one – why would anyone suspect the grieving son of anything? It’s not quite rational. It’s not quite full-on insanity. It’s how Olivier plays Hamlet – slightly unhinged, but not so much as to become caricature.

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

No, it’s not, Hamlet, you ebullient canard.

Hamlet ends as almost all of Shakespeare’s tragedies do – in death. We, as readers or watchers, can categorize Shakespeare via unnecessary body count; most comedy will throw in a death to plough a storyline, but the death won’t have consequence; most history will follow along some pattern of death – a leader or knight if the story seems biographical to a fault. But Shakespeare’s tragedies almost play as comedy and how can they not when every single character of importance dies. Here is a list of the characters who die in Olivier’s Hamlet:

  • King Hamlet
  • Queen Gertrude
  • Polonius
  • Laertes
  • Ophelia
  • King Claudius
  • Prince Hamlet

For dramatic effect, I’ll leave that list vertically; out of the eight consequential characters, seven die! Only Horatio lives and in Shakespeare’s original, he lives to crown Fortinbras, a prince of Norway, as heir apparent to the fickle Danish crown.

In Olivier’s adaptation, Fortinbras is a figment of the audience’s imagination – as are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet’s boyhood friends – and the second and foiling gravedigger (a clown). The exclusion is part of the manifest criticism Olivier had received for his interpretation; however, a less bloated interpretation certainly did the audience a favor to simplify the arcane language that’s turned so many off Shakespeare. We all recognize his greatness for and breadth of storycraft and most modern dramatic art has roots in Shakespeare’s prose, so we put up with the 16th and 17th century Olde English. The language translates emphatically well to the stage – but to the screen? It breathes in 3D and tends to huff and puff in two dimensions, even with Olivier’s magnificent rendition.

To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question

Is Hamlet‘s oft-quoted, mostly misappropriated phrase de résistance. He’s wrong though, when he poses it so flippantly. Part of what makes Hamlet, the man, engrossing is his unwavering belief in the unbelievable – the magical realism of his father’s, the murdered King, ghost, the hysteria of his “plan,” to unearth his father’s killer and the final scene. Most of what makes Hamlet, the play and film, unnerving is that we know nothing of his life before the opening scene; all we know of him is through action and inference. When he asks himself, “To Be Or Not To Be – That Is The Question,” what’s he’s missing – and surely missed – is that this isn’t a question that needs answering.

Surely 1948 offered a deeper thematic breadth than the five films nominated for Best Picture, but for our sake, we must assume that the Academy chose their version of the films that best represented the year. I’ve seen all five now (I’ve only done this with 1995 and its winner, Braveheart, was the right choice) and I’ll stake a claim that The Red Shoes should have won the year; Hamlet, brilliant but indifferent – Olivier could have made this film 10 years earlier or 10 years later and would have had the same* reaction. Johnny Belinda was too singularly-focused. The Snake Pit should never have been nominated for Best Picture – Best Actress, absolutely. It should have come down to The Red Shoes or The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre The Red Shoes was a dramatic tour de force a powerhouse of a film quite indebted to its epoch and represented postwar film avec grâce et splendour. Brava for a well-balanced year.

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