Monday, May 09, 2005

Hamlet d. Laurence Olivier, 1948

Hamlet stands out among William Shakespeare's tragedies and histories in that it lacks the bombast, the epic quality, often associated with them. Shakespeare's plays lend themselves so well to filmic adaptation because there is something inherently cinematic in them. Not that these effects cannot be powerful on the stage, but elements such as the storm in King Lear, the Battle of Agincourt in Henry V, or the outright gore and slaughter in both Macbeth and Titus seem to have presciently predicted the medium of film. Hamlet has only the final duel between the young Dane and Laertes, and the on-march of Fortinbras' and his army as semblance of the episodes found in the other plays. Much in the same manner, Olivier's Hamlet stands out among his Shakespearean oeuvre. Whereas Olivier's Richard III and Henry V either relished in their battle sequences, virtuoso and speechifying leads, or formal invention, Hamlet more closely resembles a chamber play, denuded of epic nature entirely, a feature made more apparent by the lack of Fortinbras in toto.

The film begins at the end of play, with Hamlet - dead - carried by four men to the top of Elsinore's ramparts. Olivier then inserts through voice'over a line of his own, "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Hamlet is the ultimate creation of Shakespeare as far as character is concerned. He is the epitome of the many-humored man, dominated not by any one humor, but employing them all - choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy - in order to achieve balance. He displays melancholy in the sadness of his father's death, choler in the anger of his father's murder, sanguine in the joy of his friends, and phlegm in the hesitation he shows in not murdering his uncle when given the chance. Balance Hamlet has, but indecision is also a product of this balance. The temperance of the film - especially when one compares it to Olivier's other Shakespearean works - seems, by design, to express this balance and indecision. The tone of the film is one of sorrow, joy, anger, and cowardice mixed into one, but every part slight unsure as to when its turn has come. It moves at a good pace, not so fast as to sprint or so slow as to dawdle. The camerawork (which special attention should be paid to, more later) is neither bland in its fixed position nor overly fluid in movement; instead it provides enough travel to interest, but not so much as to overwhelm. In a word, the film is centered on the idea of balance, befitting the stable, indecisive hub - Hamlet - and the unstable, humor-dominated characters that surround him.
The camera plays a very interesting part in the film. As Terrence Rafferty, in his essay on the film, notes:

Desmond Dickinson's deep-focus camera roams freely through Elsinore and its craggy windswept environs, sometimes traveling through vast empty spaces before finding the poor human characters it seeks, and then fixing them with a spectral, eerily detached gaze. The restless but oddly serene camera movement is unnerving because it feels subjective yet we can't quite identify the subject.

Further along in the essay, Rafferty identifies the subject as God. I think a more interesting idea is to see the camera as the elder Hamlet, the Ghost of the murdered King of Denmark. The Ghost's presence is felt throughout the play of Hamlet, but he only appears twice. He is the impetus behind Hamlet's actions and inactions, his presence - even if it be felt only - is essential to the integrity of the original play and any adaptation thereof. Olivier achieves this by allowing the camera to play the Ghost. Excepting the two times we see the Ghost - the second displaying a clever subjective camera trick to show that Hamlet sees the king and his mother does not - his spirit is embodied by the camera. It glides into close-ups of Hamlet, seemingly - and often actually - reading his thoughts, then quickly cranes out, suspended in the air, to take in the expanse of its castle and the wretched workings therein. In pivotal scenes, such as the moment when Hamlet fails to kill Claudius or before and during the final duel, the camera/Ghost slides through the characters, into empty corridors, and above their heads, as if to show its dis-/approval at the workings below. Mostly, excepting when Hamlet is alone, the camera remains aloof, unwilling - more likely unable - to be intimate with the affairs of the mortals. It seems that, as if dismayed by its tangible ineffectiveness, the camera/Ghost remains distant.

Just as Hamlet - although differing greatly from the majority of his corpus - stands as a gem among Shakespeare's work, so to is it with Olivier's adaptation. Olivier has a clear understanding of the major themes in Hamlet - balance, disjoint, death - and he pares down the play (a crime in lesser hands) so as to highlight these themes while maintaining the integrity of the plot. His performance as Prince Hamlet, too, is very good, and after watching Olivier's adaptation it becomes clear as to why he is heralded as a foremost student of the bard.


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