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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: September ::
Olivier on the Big Screen
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1976  Thursday, 26 September 2002

From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Tuesday, 24 Sep 2002 17:50:34 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Olivier on the Big Screen

I had the pleasure and the fortune to see Olivier's Hamlet on the screen
at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last night as part of
their presentation of the 75 Best Picture winners. I had never had the
opportunity to see any of Olivier's Shakespeare films in the way they
were meant to be viewed: projected onto a large screen, rather than
watched on a television set.

The film is astonishing in that medium. Sure, there are a few quibbles I
might have with the production but some problems I initially had with it
disappeared.  Firstly, Olivier's performance does not seem as overdone
as it sometimes can be on a television.  Perhaps the cinema produces an
atmosphere more like the theatre than a television.

The ghost (which happens to coincide with our other thread) has only
completely worked for me as he is presented here (and in Zefferelli's
film): a quiet figure, more in sadness than in anger, cloaked in
shadows. I had never noticed before that the camera at one point,
foreshadowing the "to be or not to be" speech, almost unnoticeably,
zooms into the back of Oliver's head when he sees the ghost. Another
shot of the ghost seems to rest directly above Olivier's head.  Are we
meant to believe in this version that the ghost is produced by Hamlet's
imagination? In the closet scene, Olivier seems to be staring right out
at us for an eternity before we see an indefinite figure in the shadows
that we are meant to believe is the ghost. The atmosphere for these
scenes was certainly spooky, and understatement makes the ghost work.

I was always convinced that Jean Simmons is a brilliant Ophelia and the
screen enhances the undervalued subtlety of her performance. I have
rarely seen a mad scene that works as brilliantly as it does here (the
other being Kozintsev). The audience, mostly academy members, actually
gave small audible gasps at the points where she passes out her flowers
for remembrance and for rue. It is a remarkable achievement to make such
a veiled and reference riddled scene have resonance with a modern (and
non-scholarly) audience. It is a highly charged moment that does not
come through fully on a television. Also hard to see are the little
gestures and tugs of Ophelia at Laertes as Polonius lectures him to be
true to himself.

I have always noticed the many little things that Olivier subtly does to
break down the fourth wall in this film and many more presented
themselves on a larger screen. He does the same thing in Richard III,
except he actually speaks his soliloquies there to the camera. Here,
things are done with the camera as a window into Elsinore. The
gravedigger throws dirt at the camera, and seems to place Yorick on top
of the camera, in both instances almost as if the film were being
produced in 3-D.

All in all, the film gets some knocks for things that perhaps it does
not deserve because it has been viewed on a television set. If we are
going to critique and write about these films as the deserving
productions of Shakespeare that they are, as difficult as it may be, it
seems that they should be seen in the medium for which they were
produced. Hamlet clearly presents a much different picture to our focus
on the cinema screen.

A few last notes: Olivier's Richard III presents a unique challenge
since it was produced to be shown both on the screen in color and in the
States on television in black and white. The brilliant colors would not
have been a factor in that black and white presentation, nor would the
larger vistas have been nearly as impressive on the smaller (especially
in those days) television screens.

Also, it struck me last night that Oliver was perhaps not as wrong as
previously thought when he declares Hamlet simply as a man who could not
make up his mind. It could also lead us to the conclusion that Hamlet is
unaware of the make up of his mind, its composition, and thence can not
put his mind into order. This Hamlet is intensely aware of psychology,
sometimes in a Freudian context, and part of that context is Hamlet's
labyrinthine mind. This film is deeply concerned with that mind, and
Olivier uses some surprisingly modern camera techniques (long, twisting
and seemingly interminable shots) that modern directors such as Scorsese
and Fincher have been using ever since. What could be more modern than a
shot of Horatio watching the players and turning to Claudius, and then
having that camera slowly pan from behind the court a full 180 degrees,
across the back of Claudius's head (an interesting parallel to Hamlet in
this film), until we see Horatio from the other side watching a clearly
disturbed Claudius reflecting the mirror of nature that is presented
before him?  Brilliant and still worthy of our study.

Brian Willis

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