Monday, September 05, 2005

Olivier's Hamlet


I’ve been watching the rest of Olivier’s Hamlet on DVD – I bought it somewhere or other recently for a ridiculous price. It’s superbly done, very inventive in the camera work, wonderful music score, marvellous cast (generally – the guy who plays King (Basil Sydney) is a bit weak, especially in his prayer scene); stagey, of course, but then this is a fairly close adaptation of a play (except poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got lost). And it’s gripping – even though I knew what happens, it still took hold of me and seldom let go. It’s only when Olivier is out of it for a bit (when he’s sent to England) that it loses a modicum of momentum, but otherwise it holds your attention.

I don’t think I’ve seen it since it was shown at Christian Brothers one night (we had to go back for it) in the old hall, when I was at school there. (We saw Julius Caesar about the same time). I remember it making a great impression on me then. I must catch up with the more recent version of it sometime, with Kenneth Branagh. I started to read the film script that was published of this, and it’s interesting how the comments he makes in the script give it a good deal more life, when you’re reading it.

Olivier’s version comes across as though the dialogue is just straightforward; no need to ‘recite’ this great poetry, just treat it as ordinary stage dialogue and it’ll work (Shakespeare obviously had a bit of an axe to grind when he wrote the scene where Hamlet berates the players for overacting). Only occasionally is it a bit too heavy-handed, as in the reciting of the words at the very beginning, or when the description of Ophelia’s death is given as a voice-over. Olivier’s soliloquies are well done too: partly voice-over, partly Olivier suddenly speaking out loud, all meshing together superbly. And the camera prowls around this gloomy castle with its bare stone walls and lack of furnishing and dressing and seems somehow to be able to move up the sides of the walls and sweep over the turrets. It isn’t, of course – some of it is model work – but it’s well done (especially for its time, when model work was often cheap and nasty).
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