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.