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HAMLET (CRITERION)

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Terence Morgan, Felix Aylmer
Director: Laurence Olivier
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: None
Length: 153 Minutes
Release Date: September 19, 2000

Film ****

"This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind..." comes the voice of Laurence Olivier, introducing his spectacular, though sometimes controversial adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet. To see this film is not to witness the Bard in his pure form, but rather, a smartly trimmed, stunningly photographed and remarkably uniquely cinematic re-telling of the oft-called greatest play in the history of the English language.

In other words, Olivier instinctively used the power of filmed images to comment upon his action, reflect his characters' states of mind, create and sustain atmospheres and cut right to the heart of Shakespeare's tragic Dane. To watch this movie unfold is truly to experience cinematic bliss at its most eloquent. Notice, for example, the ever present mist in the outdoor scenes, particularly in the opening moments as the watchmen confront the ghost of Hamlet's father. A little mist was not uncommon in black and white productions to keep scenes from looking too monochromatic, but here, the mist is alive, and heavy, and almost suffocating. Certain shots show the figures so enveloped by it, they appear to float within the frame, with no boundaries on any side.

Consider also how Olivier and his director of photography Desmond Dickinson used their settings and the interplay of light and shadows to create images of remarkable depth. The focus penetrates deep into the darkest crevices of Elsinore, and concentric arches are so framed as to naturally lead the eye further and further back until your mind is convinced there's nothing further to see. Olivier's Danish castle is not the luxurious palace of a mighty ruler, but rather, as cold, dark and foreboding as a sepulcher. Which is fitting enough, considering how many deaths will take place there over the course of the story.

These elements also seem to comment on the action and characters. Notice during the scene where Hamlet confronts Ophelia (a beautiful and surprisingly blonde 18-year-old Jean Simmons): the girl is framed by gently curving arches. The possibly mad prince is framed within jagged, angled ones, whose lines are made even more extreme via the camera placement. It makes for a keen interpretation of Hamlet's increasingly wretched state of mind.

The camera itself becomes like an ominous character, with its deliberate, consistent moves within unfolding scenes, constantly changing the points of view within single shots. It makes the viewer feel like a stalker haunting this troubled family, and adds to the sense of foreshadowing. An excellent example is when Hamlet hires the traveling players to put on a specially commissioned production for his uncle Claudius (Sydney) and his mother Gertrude (Herlie). Most are probably familiar enough with the classic play to know that Hamlet's father was murdered by Claudius, who then took both his throne and his wife. Hamlet re-creates the murder in his play, and when he does, notice how the camera focuses on the action of the play from the left side, and keeps it in focus while moving in a semicircular pattern around the room. At the point when the camera is directly in front of the staged action, we are seeing the enacted murder framed to the left and right by the figures of Claudius and Gertrude, whose backs are to us. Simple words cannot express how effective these visuals are.

In addition to his direction and bringing the screenplay to life, Olivier also delivered an Oscar winning performance in the title role. His Hamlet seems unusually reserved at first, but this leads gradually into a more startling sense of undoing toward the end. He internalizes much of the conflict, until it's no longer possible, and it pours forth with incredible emotion. His entire cast is equally up to the challenge, each reflecting equal amounts of Olivier's singular vision and the Bard's words and characters.

So why the controversy? Though the film was initially well received, even taking home a Best Picture Oscar, it became more 'chic' in later years to criticize elements of the picture. Many have complained that the Bard's work was butchered by Oliver. Gone are key characters, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras. Almost gone, save for a few, are the touches of humor Shakespeare was famed for sprinkling in his plays. Missing are some of the most famous quotes: "a little more than kin, and less than kind," "the lady doth protest too much, methinks", as well as at least one of Hamlet's most insightful monologues. As Kenneth Branagh's later epic production would prove, you really need about four hours worth of film to touch on everything in the play. Two and a half hours requires some surgical attention. Olivier himself referred to his film as more of "a study in Hamlet" than a straight re-telling, but it didn't prevent some critics from unleashing a bit of acid in his direction...even complaining that at age 40, he was far too old to play the great Dane.

Still, Olivier had a great understanding of the Shakespearean text, and in altering the original play for his movie, his motivation was not to cut down the Bard, but rather to concentrate on the most cinematic aspects of the story. He chose to focus on the internal conflicts that drove and molded the leading character: how he goes from melancholy prince to dark avenger over the course of the tale. I find that his "study" in the character of Hamlet to be more complete and in-depth than any other film or stage version I've ever witnessed. And one must also remember that Olivier had a knack for transforming the Bard into cinematic visions that could never have existed on the stage. You can also study his ground-breaking adaptation of Henry V (also available from Criterion) to gain even more appreciation of Olivier's unique visions.

I love Shakespeare, and when I read his works, I treasure every moment, every word, and every character. Which is why I'm glad the task never fell to me to bring one of his works to the screen. Yes, the purist might be a little distracted over the cuts and changes made in this film, but one needs to watch this production not with an ear for Shakespeare, but with an eye for cinema. Those who do so will find that Olivier's Hamlet really does rank amongst the best film adaptations of the Bard ever created...and for my money, one of the movies' all time great achievements overall.

Video ****

Considering that this landmark film had not been available for home viewing in any format for many, many years, my gratitude to Criterion for making it available on DVD was as high as my expectations for the quality was low. And was I ever surprised! I should have known that an older movie bearing the Criterion label would be top quality, but I never dreamed it could be as good as it is. Yes, there are a few bits of tell-tale aging signs, like specks and occasional scratches, but far, FAR less than what I'd normally be willing to overlook for a movie from the 40's. This black and white transfer is, in a word, perfection. Shot after shot were carefully constructed to encompass a full range of bright whites and dark blacks, with various levels of gray cutting across and breaking up the images. They render beautifully, with no edge distortions or lack of clarity. These images are razor sharp and crisp throughout. I mentioned the deep focus photography, and rest assured, every minute detail, from the invading mists to the textures on the farthest walls are visible and clear. No darker scenes suffer from undue grain, shimmer, or compression of any kind, and the way Olivier sometimes brings figures out from shadows or changes the positioning of the lights as he movies his cameras all render smoothly and effortlessly. If Hamlet the movie is cinematic bliss, as I described it, Hamlet the DVD expresses it perfectly.

Audio ***

This single-channel digital mono track is as clean and clear as the video transfer. All dialogue is perfectly rendered, as is William Walton's dramatic score. The dynamic range is quite good and natural sounding, and the listening experience is surprisingly full for utilizing one speaker. Many of the settings in Elsinore consist of wide open spaces, and as such, the dialogue was recorded with attention to the natural reverb the expansive stone walls would create. Notice the subtlety of certain sounds, like the faraway crashing of waves or the quiet sounds of a flickering fire, and how they contrast with the thunderous footsteps of the ghost and the low end of the score, which are loud and boast an impressive amount of bass without sending a channel to the subwoofer. This is about as good as an older mono soundtrack can get!

Features (zero stars)

Unless you count the color bars as a legitimate feature, this one is sadly lacking for a Criterion disc, although the movie and transfer quality more than make up for it in my opinion.

Summary:

Hamlet is a cinematic treasure that no serious film lover should miss. It was unavailable for home viewing for many years, but Criterion has once again come to the rescue of DVD fans by not only presenting this title to us, but with a restored video and audio transfer that should be considered one of the industry's standards for older movies for years to come. Quality, thy name is Criterion!

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