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The Criterion Collection presents
Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948)

"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
- Horatio (Norman Wooland)

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: November 26, 2000

Stars: Laurence Olivier, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons, Basil Sydney
Other Stars: Felix Aylmer, Peter Cushing
Director: Laurence Olivier

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes)
Run Time: 02h:32m:48s
Release Date: September 19, 2000
UPC: 037429128428
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- B+B+C+ D

DVD Review

In Terrence Rafferty's short essay on the 1948 version of Hamlet (featured in the keepcase insert), he brings up a very good point. There once was a time when this film version of the Shakespearean play was considered the definitive one. Laurence Olivier (who functions as both star and director) was held up as the ultimate standard by which all Shakespearean actors should be judged. It would seem that nowadays, however, things are beginning to change. Laurence Olivier's Hamlet is now often chided as too simplistic, too long, and featuring an actor too old to properly portray the young prince. It is true that Olivier was in his 40's when he made this film, and even that he cast a woman half his age to play his mother, but is that really so important? Iin the end it comes down to the individual viewer and what they seek in their ideal interpretation of Shakespeare's epic play.

The classic story of Hamlet is, of course, the story of the young Danish prince who is absorbed in depression over the loss of his father. His uncle marries his mother almost directly after the funeral, only compounding his anger at the world. Eventually Hamlet is confronted with the ghost of his father, who reveals that it was murder that sent him to an early grave. The ghost tells Hamlet that his uncle bears the blame, and so Hamlet must have his revenge; however, he must first prove that the new King is indeed the culprit. Wracked with sadness and besieged by family members who try to convince him he's crazy, Hamlet has his work cut out for him.

This story is engraved into the conscious of just about anyone who ever attended school. I myself had to study the play a whopping 3 times during my basic education, once even portraying Hamlet in an extremely low-tech version of the play. Hamlet has also been made into a movie well over 20-30 times, and we have another version to look forward to in 2001. It's because of all this that most people know the play intimately, but also have most of the core plot and famous dialogue memorized. As a result, most filmmakers and actors try and put their own spin on the play in order to impress old audiences and draw in new ones. In the case of this 1948 version, Laurence Olivier makes a few intriguing changes to the Hamlet we're used to.

First, the pacing of the play is radically altered. This is largely thanks to the fact that Olivier's screenplay completely omits the entire subplot involving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the King trying to prove Hamlet is mad. A few of the more famous monologues are also removed. The end result is a very cerebral interpretation of the play, with Olivier's Hamlet as more of a thinker than a doer. Did I like it? Well, yes and no. Olivier directs with extremely refined style, often using sweeping crane shots or clever quick edits to piece together the entire castle set as if it were a living, breathing, thing. The screenwriting obviously tries to add some flair to the conventional interpretation, including some complex special effects and lightens the mood a bit with performances that aren't quite as stiff as normal.

Olivier himself is obviously a gifted actor, with much passion for Shakespearean works. Regardless, his performance is not one of my favorites. I've always thought of Hamlet as a character who, despite his angst, gets the job done anyway. Here, however, Olivier's interpretation is a bit too sad and staged. While I did appreciate the fact that most of the monologue material was done inside Hamlet's head (rather than talking to himself), he's still too mopey and depressing to function as a hero. I suppose one has to factor in the era of the material. In 1948, this film was probably one of the more animated and energetic performances of Hamlet ever seen. Filmmaker Franco Zefferelli had not yet emerged with his fantastic and more easily accessible versions of Shakespeare's works.

In the end, despite excellent casting (including the stunning Jean Simmons as Ophelia), Hamlet still feels like watching a stageplay. This is not a bad thing, as the entire production is first rate, but my tastes are more towards films that take the play and transform it into something that feels far-removed from the stage. Casual fans will probably get lost in the language (which was not altered or simplified for this performance) and find even the most busy scenes as very boring. Serious fans of Shakespeare will find much to admire, but may find the purposefully sad and confused performance by Laurence Olivier very awkward. I can, however, put my own opinions aside and look at the technical aspects of the film, and easily agree that this deserved the Academy Awards® received as well as the praise. At its worst, Hamlet is merely a bit stodgy and melodramatic; at its best, it represents an ambitious project, filled with talent and passion.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The restored image here is certainly impressive. Despite the rough and murky moments early on in the film, it settles into an extremely sharp and accurate black & white image. Black level is very accurate and despite a lot of grain, the film does not exhibit any compression artifacts or pixelization. There are some instances of source print damage, but they are minimized, almost unnoticeable.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The single channel mono soundtrack, for the most part, sounds clear and accurate, considering its age. Unfortunately, though, there is a great deal of damage to the source audio. Many scenes have audio distortion, warbling, and minor sound drop-outs. They are never major enough to intrude on the enjoyment of the film, but they are there.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. NTSC Color Bars
Extras Review: The film is pretty no-frills. The only extra is Criterion's usual color bar inclusion, which is an irony considering the film is black-and-white. I found this somewhat disappointing considering the history of this film. I wonder if anything could have been included, such as interview footage with Laurence Olivier before his death, or a making-of documentary with everyone still living. Even a commentary by film historians would have been nice.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Though I prefer the Mel Gibson/Franco Zefferelli version of Hamlet as the most superior on film, Laurence Olivier's take on the play is an undeniable classic despite its shortcomings. It is rather lengthy, but generally rewarding for the Shakespeare fan. Highly recommended.


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