The most conventionally “formal” and “dramatic” of the three film versions of Hamlet that I’ve recently watched, this one is also the longest. It appears to use more of the play’s text than the others. Yet it also makes interesting exclusions: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are absent, for example. Both the central character and his friend Horatio seem middle-aged. Hamlet’s blonde Nordic hair is disconcerting.
The director as well as the central actor of this film, Laurence Olivier uses the film to foreground the play’s most dramatic scenes and passages, which of course foregrounds his role as the title character. The film thus becomes a series of dramatic Olivier moments. The play lends itself to such a strategy. Hamlet for me has always been a series of exceptional speeches and moments. Rhetorically, linguistically, it’s a powerful play. Dramatically, it’s not always clear what is happening, and why. The central action is Hamlet’s inaction.
One interesting strategy is the film’s use of the architecture of the castle as a physical symbol of the rotten House of Denmark, and of the title character’s brittle psyche. A painful scene between Hamlet and Ophelia transitions to the next through a series of incredible shots where the camera seems to swoop up and down narrow stairwells, moving from one scene to another, from inside to outside the castle, culminating in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy on the parapet of the castle walls high above the sea. This for me is the film’s outstanding moment.