Hamlet (1948)

Hamlet (1948)

To understand Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, you must first try to understand the concept behind today’s screen acting.  Screen acting is generally considered to be ‘good’ if it is realistic and natural, and ‘good’ characterisation comes from being able to decipher a character’s motivation: their wants, needs and desires.  These are ideas are imported from the realist movement of the late 19th Century and were brought to America by the famous Constantin Stanislavsky.  To be successful, he taught, acting must be real.

Emerging in tandem with realist acting at the beginning of the 20th Century were various advances in psychology, notably Sigmund Freud’s analysis of the development of the human mind.  It’s all very complicated stuff which I won’t pretend to know more of than the basics.  In the case of Olivier’s Hamlet, the Oedipus Complex is the most relevant – the idea being that the male psyche desires, often unwittingly, to surplant one’s father and marry one’s mother.  Freud’s work has largely been discredited, but even today we can observe his fundamentals in various artistic movements.

Olivier’s Hamlet binds itself to these two forces irremovably.  Watching the film, it would be easy to think that Shakespeare’s text is solely about Hamlet’s search for meaning and self-realisation.  Sure, this theme features strongly, but this version of Hamlet has also been heavily edited to emphasise this aspect of Hamlet’s psychological turmoil.  Some characters, such as Ophelia, have major speeches whittled down while others, such as Rosencratz and Guildenstern, have been removed entirely.  Through their absence we are given a film which focuses very much on Hamlet’s actions, desires, and inability to take control.

The film also uses various visual symbols and metaphors to further engage us in the psychology of Hamlet.  Elsinore, Hamlet’s castle, is not just isolated, it is perched on the edge of a rocky precipice with waves crashing against the cliffs below, symbolising the psychological turmoil and feelings of isolation inside Hamlet himself.  The castle is scattered with dominating towers, suggesting the phallocentricity of the film’s title character, while the Queen’s bed (Hamlet’s mother) is adorned with vulvic curtains which suggest a sexual interest in his mother.  The whole film, from the words to the setting, is about Hamlet: his thoughts, his feelings and his inability to deal with his father’s death.

So defining is this film that we carry it with us whenever we look at Shakespeare today.  Shakespeare wasn’t necessarily interested in providing his audience with a well-rounded, psychologically plausible person.  He was writing for effect and excitement.  Performance in Shakespeare’s day was big and over-the-top (if you ever get the chance to see a production at the Globe Theatre in London, do it!).  In the 1940’s, Olivier captures the essence of 20th Century acting by transposing the ways that we understand the human mind onto one of the most complex, fascinating and popular plays to grace the stage.

And how does the film hold up?  I love it.  It’s tightly wrought, and to the point.  The characters are played just as I imagine them.  Olivier is magnificent of course, a fantastic performance, and his co-stars have been excellently directed with a complete understanding of their line delivery.  The ghost scene, spooky and haunting, is a highlight.

Hamlet is a defining film of the 20th Century.  We can find faults today, in the way that it quashes the voice of the female characters for instance, but even so it stands up as one of the best film adaptations of Shakespeare and one of the most significant films of the 20th century.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

One of the seminal themes amongst the Best Picture winners is that war and hatred are not okay.  I believe it is a responsibility of film, as a mass medium, to export these wholesome and valuable ideas, and to this end I feel that Gentleman’s Agreement is a success.  Dealing with one of the most influential themes of the 20th Century, antisemitism, the film offers a unique and much needed response to the terrors of racial hatred as they were witnessed during the Second World War.  In the 1940’s, I’ve no doubt that this film was screaming to be made and it’s statement to be heard.

Unfortunately, watching this today I found it bland as old chips and incredibly monotonous.

For one thing, the aesthetic is dead boring.  Sure, the star Gregory Peck is very handsome.  Sure, there’s a scene in a house in the country that looks quite pretty.  But as for the rest, it’s nothing more than a drab, samey and impartial series of visual images.  So, so boring.  Maybe this movie is meant to be about the message and story, but film is a visual medium and as such needs to keep us engaged with interesting visuals.  In this case, that was severely lacking.

Secondly, in a film that is clearly about race-relations, why do we have to suffer through an interminably dull, tacked on love story?  Honestly, who cares?  We want to see the meat of the tale.  Phil, the protagonist, is a journalist posing as a Jew in order to better understand racial discrimination.  With a set up like this we’re yearning to vicariously experience some rousing and troubling persecutions.  Instead, the main contest to Phil’s experiment comes from the whinings of his girlfriend.  This plot angle is seriously lame.

My main issue with Gentleman’s Agreement is that there are really no surprises.  Where I come from, being Jewish is barely recognised as a marker of difference, and the terrible anti-semitism that plagued the world in the early part of the 20th century is a strange and distant memory.  Where I’m from, we know already that anti-semitism is bad news.  Here, Gentleman’s Agreement offers nothing we don’t know already, and as such has been castrated, left utterly impotent and exposed for the bland, drab film that it is.

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946)

The Best Years Of Our Lives is a sincere and passionate look at how it feels to return from war, and in equal measure how it feels for a loved one to return.  Thinking of the meta-narrative I mentioned earlier – the idea that these films tell an over-arching story – The Best Years Of Our Lives ‘closes the book’ on World War II, functionally helping a (no doubt) reeling America cope with the sudden reality of peace, and also offering an artistic engagement with the post-war experiences of soldiers and their families.  The Best Years of Our Lives is a true successor to Mrs Miniver, which was also directed by William Wyle and for which he deservedly won an Academy Award for Best Director (that’s twice!).

Interestingly, this is the first Best Picture to take place in contemporary America without featuring New York City.  I take this as a sign of maturity in American filmmaking, and as a symbol that American filmmakers feel in control and are able to tell their stories through their eyes.  From my perspective though, what’s most interesting about this film is the way that we, of the 21st Century Pacific, pick up on, and relate to, a sense of nostalgia.

From the shots of the townscape through to the ice-cream parlours with coca-cola logos, there’s a sense of ‘coming home’ emanating so strongly from this film I almost feel like this truly is a part of my history.  That’s the trick though, right?  To make me feel like this is what life should be, like it’s all the things I yearned for during my ‘best years’.  We’re suckered in, convinced by this foreign time and place.  Is this the magic of film at work?  Or is it the homogenising force of war-time imperialism living on?

I’m not really interested in answering those questions directly, I think that’s up to the individual, but what I can offer is a little more light as to why this film works as an indelible piece of cinema; and consequently, how it sells it’s nostalgia.  The Best Years Of Our Lives has captured the essence of human feeling.  This is in large part helped by the story’s excellent pacing and structure (three men’s lives and families wrapped around one another), and in equal measure through the film’s incredibly astute and well honed performances.  Fredric March: outstanding, and Harold Russel: unarguably sublime.

To match the top-notch acting and superior story structure, the camera work and editing are given true attention to detail.  Just observe the way the early aeroplane flight makes you feel as though you are in motion when you are clearly just sitting in your living room.

I’ve suggested that this film is homogenising and imperialist, yet it remains exciting  today in it’s technical wizardry.  It’s themes are often off-kilter, unusual and interesting.  I believe that The Best Of Our Lives is a whole-heartedly sincere and pure film.  I wonder, then, that perhaps it may be less homogenising and more…universal?  For instance, observe Al’s young son debating the use of nuclear war with his father.  It is striking that even seventy years ago people wanted to see the same changes in the world.

I wonder if we should feel happy that our feelings today are echoed across time, or sad that these pleas are yet to be fully acted upon.