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Nicol Williamson takes the lead role in this star-studded 1969 version of William Shakespeare's tragedy. Prince Hamlet mourns both his father's death and his mother's remarriage to Claudius... See full summary »
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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For better or worse, this remains the definitive film version of hamlet.
I confess I'm not happy with that. Olivier re-edits the script considerably. What appear to be continuity innovations simply fall flat for me. The worst instance of this is the famed "to be or not to be" speech (most of it delivered in voice-over), which jumps out of nowhere in this version, apropos nothing. Olivier gets away with this butchery on the basis of his roaring egotism (which finally leads to a roaring Hamlet to the end) and the fact that his is one of the most careful directions of the play-as-film to be found on film.
Which of course leads me to the positive aspects of the film. Simply as a film, it is brilliantly designed and executed. I've rarely felt a film so successfully blend claustrophobia and depth - this is accomplished through careful juxtapositions of scenes of high-contrast black & white with scenes filled with grey fog; only Hitchcock could have done better (but of course Hitchcock would never have made Hamlet).
And although Olivier's performance is really over the top, he wisely makes sure that all the other actors get to come close to that level, especially the actor playing Hamlet's nasty step-dad. So the film vibrates with energy almost from the get-go and all the way to the end.
I keep trying to see every film version of Hamlet i can find, to see if the final, absolutely really and truly definitive version of Shakespeare's play (and not Olivier's version of it) might yet be viewed; but until then, this will have to do.
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