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William A. Wellman
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William Shakespeare's tale of tragedy of murder and revenge in the royal halls of medieval Denmark. Claudius, brother to the King, conniving with the Queen, poisons the monarch and seizes the throne, taking the widowed Gertrude for his bride. Hamlet, son of the murdered King, mournful of his father's death and mother's hasty marriage, is confronted by the ghost of the late King who reveals the manner of his murder. Seeking revenge, Hamlet recreates the monstrous deed in a play with the help of some traveling actors to torment the conscience of the evil Claudius. In a visit with his mother, Hamlet expresses his anger and disappointment concerning her swiftly untimed marriage. Thinking a concealed spy in his mother's chamber to be the lurking Claudius, he mistakenly kills the meddling counselor, Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes. Claudius, on the pretext that Hamlet will be endangered by his subjects for the murder of Polonius, sends the prince to England. Written by
So oft it chances in particular men / That through some vicious mole of nature in them, / By the o'ergrowth of some complexion / Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason, / Or by some habit grown too much; that these men - / Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect, / Their virtues else - be they as pure as grace, / Shall in the general censure take corruption / From that particular fault... This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.
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Hamlet (Laurence Olivier), son of the murdered king of Denmark, contemplates whether or not to take vengeance on the murderer and now king, Claudius (Basil Sydney), Hamlet's uncle. Hamlet must also decide what to do about his mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie), who is now married (quite happily, it seems) to Claudius, and Claudius' chief adviser, Polonius (Felix Aymer). In the middle of all this is Hamlet's love Ophelia (Jean Simmons), who is completely confused --- and hurt --- by Hamlet's increasingly bizarre behavior.
Like the Zeffrilli/Gibson and Branaugh versions of Shakespeare's classic that followed, Olivier's adaptation is a mostly excellent film with several annoying flaws keeping it just out of reach of greatness.
Olivier is superb as Hamlet --- especially when delivering the soliloquies, several of which are genuinely powerful. The rest of the cast, however, is a mixed bag. Herlie is very good, managing to completely overcome that fact that she is really 13 years younger than Olivier. Sydney has his moments and does a decent job, but never really gets across who Claudius really is. Aymer is amusing but nothing more. Simmons makes a good Ophelia, albeit not a great one. Norman Wooland is excellent as Horatio (which is a tough role to actually be memorable in). Stanley Holloway is good as the Gravedigger, but somehow he doesn't nail the part the way Billy Crystal did in the 1996 version. Finally, Peter Cushing is odd as Osric. The rest of the cast is either stiff or completely uninteresting.
However, other than some weak performances, Olivier does a superb job directing everything. The atmosphere during the ghost scenes is absolutely suffocating and starts the film off well. And right from that scene, it's obvious that the camera work is going to be awesome. The camera moves and sweeps everywhere --- but not just for the sake of moving and sweeping like many movies (coughMichaelBaycoughcough). It creates extraordinary images and energy that make many scenes unforgettable --- without calling too much attention to itself.
William Walton's creepy music adds a lot.
Finally, the climactic fencing scenes are genuinely great easily the best fencing scenes in a version of Hamlet and possibly among the best in film history.
However, despite many great scenes, the movie never creates the emotions it needs to really make the blows come. Yes, some scenes are truly compelling, but on the whole, it misses the mark in that department.
However, the scenes that work are brilliant, and despite the lack of emotional power, it is an entertaining and superbly made film that's just as worthwhile as its 90's successors (although it is marginally inferior to them, which is odd --- the 40's version inferior to the 90's remakes!).
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