Year:                               1948

Director:                         Lord Laurence Olivier

Associate Producer:          Reginald Beck

Asst Producer:                  Anthony Bushell

Script:                             Alan Dent. (from Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Cinematography:              Desmond Dickinson

Editing:                           Helga Cranston

Art Direction:                   Carmen Dillon

Costume Designer:            Roger Furse

Music:                              William Walton

Sir Laurence Olivier's 1948 version of Hamlet sets the standard for film version of the play about the Danish prince. Much as he did with Henry V, Sir Laurence cuts some significant plot points and characters from Shakespeare's play, but it is done to concentrate the focus of the film on the brooding prince. He removes as much as 50% of Shakespeare's script. Major characters, including Fortinbras, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are excised altogether. Without Fortinbras he can dispense as well with Voltemand and Cornelius. The recitation of the sack of Troy is deleted, as is all of The Murder of Gonzago except the dumb show, that is to say, the hackneyed theatrical tradition denigrated by Hamlet himself but which the Players perform anyway.

Scenes are switched about, major speeches replaced by single lines, other speeches reconstructed as a collage put together from different parts of the play. The result is a sterling masterpiece, a beautifully functioning art , all of whose components, acting, words, blocking, camerawork, scenery and music are brilliantly combined. I for one am convinced that Shakespeare would have approved.

Make no mistake about it, this is Sir Laurence's film all the way. He brings an amazing breadth to character who disintegrates from a happy and sensitive man into a tormented and lost soul. There are some other great performances including Eileen Herlie who plays the Queen and is Sir Laurence's mother in the film despite being thirteen years his junior, a young Jean Simmons is luminous as Ophelia and Basil Sydney is effective as the villainous Claudius. Horror film notables Peter Cushing and the now Christopher Lee also appear as does Stanley Holloway. The film was a major success and it helped earn Sir Laurence his only competitive Oscars in 1948 as Best Actor and as producer on the Best Picture award in addition to two others for Best Art Direction (B&W) and Best Costume Design (B&W). He is also the only Best Actor Oscar winner to direct himself to the award.

Olivier's take on Shakespeare's story of madness and murder most foul is unmistakably cinematic -- he takes full advantage of the medium, avoiding the trap of merely filming a play as some Shakespeare adaptations do, with monologues delivered as internal thoughts heard in hushed voiceovers. He occasionally uses dizzying camerawork to show Hamlet's inner turmoil, a trick that could never have worked on stage. The setting, lighting, and cinematography are wondrous setting the sombre and Gothic tone.

Some notable scenes for me include the sequence where the Ghost appears. Olivier uses sound and voice to create the disorientation that Hamlet and others feel when in the presence of the supernatural for a great creepy effect. Another arresting scene is when Laertes and Claudius are planning the murder of Hamlet. It starts with a close shot of the duo but slowly backs away, as if it wants to separate itself, and the audience, from the bloody deeds being discussed.

Olivier's Hamlet is of the more cunning/less mad variety, and it's probably because his Hamlet is already on a somewhat even keel that Olivier felt he could do away with Hamlet's buddies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who usually act as a bit of ballast for an increasingly mad Hamlet. And Olivier's Hamlet ends on a rather less doomed note than most productions do: His mother, Gertrude (Eileen Herlie), drinks from the poisoned goblet of wine not accidentally but deliberately, sacrificing herself for her son, a spin I haven't seen before, making her death more noble than tragic. And since Olivier also eliminated the warmongering neighbour of Elsinore, Fortinbras is no longer poised to steal the throne at the death of both the king and his heir, Hamlet.

Scenery, staging, decor, setting and camerawork in the Olivier production are of the highest artistic quality, not so much in the technical sense as in their capacity to stir the imagination. This is in vivid contrast to so much of modern cinema where the intention appears to be to drug the imagination.

In a good film the camera itself is alive, another actor in its own right. The high level of interest maintained by the camera work has the result that all things, such as bells, fogs, steep ascents, dark shadows, suggestions of distances and vistas, convey the idea that, although the film was made in an actual 20th century Elsinore, it functions more effectively as a realm of dreams than anywhere else .