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Best Picture: Hamlet (1948)

The 21st film to win Best Picture is an aberration in the Academy’s track record, being the only winner to have adapted a well-known piece of ancient literature. It’s also a new baseline reading for how we interpret one of the most celebrated plays in the English language. 

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to fully unpack William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ever since it was first performed in the early 1600s, actors, directors, scholars, and casual theater enthusiasts have been discussing its meaning, its various interpretations, and its ongoing relevance. You’ve read it. You’ve talked about it in class. It is one of the best things any of us has ever read, and one of my favorite plays of all time. And I don’t think I can ever uncover every dark corner of this massively rich play. There are more things in Hamlet than are dreamt of in my philosophy.

It was also the basis for the motion picture that won Best Picture in 1948, making it an aberration in several significant ways: It’s the only straight Shakespearean production to have won best picture, and only one of a few to be nominated (A Midsummer Night’s Dream was nominated in 1935, Romeo and Juliet in 1936 and 1968, Henry V in 1946, Julius Caesar in 1953, and that’s it). It was a classical film that won Best Picture in a time of growing modern personal melodramas and “social problem” films. It’s a Best Picture winner that, as far as I can tell, does not pertain to any modern-day politics. It is a straightforward interpretation of a well-known play. And it’s also one of the best adaptations of that best of plays.

Hamley Ophelia

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet has become something of a baseline reading when it comes to interpretations of it. When modern audiences think of Hamlet, the way it moves, its themes, the way scenes are interpreted, we tend to think of what Olivier did in this film. The notions of Hamlet being enclosed within a miasma of indecision and Freudian symbolism come directly from this particular interpretation. When your teacher talks about how Hamlet should be seen in the mind’s eye (see what I did there?), they are drawing from the critical traditions codified by the 1948 film version. Any and all Shakespeare enthusiasts should perhaps see this film. It’s not merely a Shakespearean adaptation, but a watershed moment for Shakespearean criticism in the late 20th century.

The next question: Is it the best movie Hamlet? The answer: It’s close. While this may sound heretical, I would rank Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 production still higher merely for the audacity of including the entire text of the play. Branagh’s Hamlet seems to delve deeper into the play, stimulating the intellect a bit more. Olivier, however, was the better actor in the title role (which I’m sure Branagh may agree with), and pushed the visuals of the play into a cinematic place better than any Shakespearean production had before and has done only rarely since.

Hamlet towerIn this production of Hamlet, Castle Elsinore is seen as an expressionistic headspace rather than a practical castle. It consists of vast impractical openings connected by ineffable maze-like corridors. A prominent feature of the castle is a tall tower with no walls, allowing Hamlet to perch on the edge, looking down at the rocks below, contemplating death with his “To be or not to be” speech, dispassionately declaring his indecision out into the abyss. The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears out of the inky blackness that always lurks outside of the castle walls. This is a dream-like reality, and not a hefty or realistic interpretation. For Shakespeare, who wrote in a world of heightened poetry, this dream-like setting is typically more appropriate. At least for his tragedies, which tend to be his better plays.

Do I need to recount the story? I suppose I must. Hamlet, a student of about 30 and heir to the throne, is upset because his father has recently died, his uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney) took the throne, and his mother Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) married his uncle. When the ghost of his father reveals that Claudius murdered him, Hamlet becomes morally torn. Does he seek revenge like a good tragic hero and loyal son, or does he forgive, which is his more human, moral instinct? Over the course of the play, his constant reconsideration leads to the madness of his girlfriend Ophelia (Jean Simmons), more than a few deaths, and the eventual fall of the Danish court.

Olivier strikes a balance between Hamlet the brooding indecisive human and Hamlet the funny, mincing stage presence. It’s one of the better Hamlet performances you’ll ever see; there’s a reason Laurence Olivier is considered one of the best actors of all time. Jean Simmons is a fragile Ophelia, and I liked Terence Morgan’s square-jawed lout version of Laertes. Some attentive people may also recognize Doctor Who‘s Patrick Troughton as the Player King, and Peter Cushing as Osric. I didn’t recognize them, but Christopher Lee, Patrick MacNee (from The Avengers), and Desmond Llewelyn (Q from the James Bond movies) all evidently have non-speaking roles.

Hamlet 1948 réal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier  Collection Christophel

If there’s one thing to complain about this particular film version, it’s that it doesn’t seem so daring when looked back at from the modern day. This may be a strange analogue, but it’s like watching Beverly Hills Cop in 2014. The tropes the respective films invented became so well-known, that they were outstripped by their imitators. Let it be known that I’m probably the first critic to compare Hamlet and Beverly Hills Cop.

Hamlet. I love it. I love this play a lot, and I love this film of it. I wish we had more Shakespeare in the Best Picture canon. I guess we’ll eventually have West Side Story to look at.

Join me next week for All the King’s Men.

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