In some ways there’s really not much else to say about this film. But Laurence Olivier should be commended, and at the 21st annual Academy Awards he was for his excellent film adaptation of the legendary play.
For those unfamiliar with the play, Hamlet, set in the Kingdom of Denmark, tells the story of Prince Hamlet beseeched by the ghost of his father, King Hamlet, to bring revenge on his uncle, Claudius. Claudius murdered his own brother, claimed the throne and married his deceased brother’s widow.
Olivier had played the Danish prince on the stage twice in 1937, once in London and once actually in Denmark at Elsinore (aka Helsingør) where the play is set.
What gives this film its strength is Olivier’s ability to forego the overwrought traditional Shakespearean delivery for natural performances that convey emotion, character and truth. Although the text remained intact the actors elevate the story above the original dialogue which can at times be tough to follow.
He lets Hamlet stand on its own two feet but wisely made the right edits to keep it tight and moving.
If you’ve never seen Hamlet or you have a hard time with traditional presentations of Shakespeare, this is very accessible. I don’t have a problem with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or reimaginings like West Side Story, Kiss Me Kate, O or even 10 Things I Hate About You. But I’m grateful for the Laurence Oliviers and Kenneth Branaghs who keep the original work alive in all its glory for modern film-going audiences.
For centuries the play has been renowned for many reasons but my favorite is how Hamlet stages a play within the play exposing his uncle’s murder most foul. It’s supremely clever and Olivier executes it wonderfully.
The cinematography was deeply inspired by Orson Welles’ innovative work on Citizen Kane. Olivier really makes great use of the camera to adapt a 350-year old play for film. It’s almost as if Shakespeare wrote it for the screen.
You know, for someone who died three centuries before the first Academy Awards, Shakespeare has received quite a bit of Oscar love. Over the years a number of the Bard’s plays have been turned into films that caught the Academy’s eye going all the way back to 1935 when A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nominated for four Oscars including best picture.
Olivier’s Hamlet became not only the first Shakespearean work (traditional or reimagined) to win best picture, it was also the first British film to win the top prize.
Laurence Olivier is perfect in this role. He had a passion for this film and you can see it in his performance and the direction (he also produced the film). There have been 21 times in Academy history when someone directed themselves to an acting nomination. Olivier became the first to ever win*.
He didn’t take home the directing Oscar though. That year it went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, one of the greatest films ever made.
Although successful Hamlet wasn’t a huge hit at the box office. The other four best picture nominees were all in the top 7 at the box office. Alas, poor Hamlet was down at #17.
Hamlet received seven nominations, winning four (picture, actor, art direction and costume). Also, Jean Simmons was up for supporting actress for her portrayal of Ophelia. But Olivier didn’t receive a nomination for adapting the screenplay.
The Academy seems to have difficulty evaluating adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. Only twice has any Shakespearean adaptation, traditional or reimagined, been nominated for best screenplay.
I have a general rule that if a script isn’t nominated that film can’t win best picture. Film making is storytelling and therefore your script must be one of the best to have the best film.
I won’t say that Hamlet is the exception to the rule because The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (which won for director, supporting actor and screenplay) should have won best picture anyway. But probably under the right circumstances I could give it a pass. Ultimately the script should have been nominated making this point moot.
So much for there not being much to say about this film.
*50 years later Roberto Benigni would become the only other person to direct himself to a best actor win for Life Is Beautiful.