academia classic film laurence olivier

Art in Film: Hamlet (1948)

I’m just about finished with my essay for my British cinema class.  I’m writing about Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet and how it conforms to the concept of “quality cinema” laid out by British critics of the 1940s:

Prior to WWII, British cinema was not regarded in a very serious light. Though the 1930s was a productive period and many émigré directors and technicians were inflecting a  “rich stylistic and thematic corpus of films,” the output of the British film industry at this time was seen by both critics on the home front and cinephiles abroad as being inferior to Hollywood standards and unworthy of praise. It was not until the early 1940s that critics began discerning a wave of films that “seemed to have a positive cultural identity of their own.” From roughly 1942 to 1948, critics from periodicals such as The Times, Evening Standard, and The Observer used the term “quality” to define certain British films that they believed were artistic, realistic, embedded with deeper meaning, infused with a particular Britishness or national identity, and would hopefully appeal to a wide variety of audiences in Britain and abroad. By imposing such high-brow judgments on films, the “quality” critics “hoped to change the nature of mass cinema in Britain.” —the opening paragraph of my essay

Hamlet is undoubtedly a quality film. It was praised for its artistry and acting, and Olivier was labeled an auteur filmmaker. Out of all of his straight cinematic Shakespearean adaptations, Hamlet has always been my favorite. It’s simply a beautiful film. The use of black and white, the lighting, the costumes, the set design, the deep-focus photography. I have to agree with New York Times critic Terrence Rafferty who says:

Olivier may be the only actor who has fully recognized that Hamlet’s irresolution has its own fierce energy, and that his morbidity is, at heart, a kind of ardor. If Olivier were better “suited” to the daunting role, he might not have unearthed so many fresh truths in playing it. His Hamlet may actually be his greatest achievement as a filmmaker. In Olivier’s hands, Shakespeare’s elusive, haunted, infinitely suggestive tragedy becomes unusually vivid and compelling, and yet remains, as it must, wondrous strange.

Ophelia’s suicide was directly inspired by John Everett Millais’ pre-Raphaelite painting, Ophelia, which hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.

Millais painting via Thinking Shakespeare; Hamlet caps from the Criterion edition

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (2)

  1. such a beautiful piece of work.Olivier uses his great impact on audiences and both his immense talent as an actor and his ability as a film director to do justice to Shakespeare, the greatest script writer who you can imagine.I still think that nobody can touch him , nor Branagh neither Smoktunovskij in the russian version.Months ago, I arranged a screening of this movie for an audience composed by young students and they were completely in awe.

  2. Dear Kendra,having been more than a raving fan all my life of Larry I’m enjoying your website tremendously,read with great interest your essay, found it absolutely passing even strict muster and keep enthusing about all the foto-material that you so cunnily succed in digging up–Thank you for sharing it with us! In due time you will hear a lot more from me about the subject.Till then keep searching, please!Renata.C.

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