Introduction: This award-winning film, the first in which the leading actor, Laurence Olivier, directed himself to Oscar success, was considered a cinematic masterpiece in its interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. In order to examine critical response in 1948, contemporary 21st century critical reaction, and academic views, a thorough search of the Internet was conducted, on the assumption that archived material would be easily accessed…
Discussion: In a chronological approach to the assessment, reviews from 1948 will first be examined. In his New York Times reviews, in September 1948, Bosley Crowther was almost lyrical in his praise. As mentioned earlier, he cited the power of the camera use, as it
With regard to the cuts, which included some soliloquies and the characters, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras, Crowther is dismissive, considering cutting these to be "judicious editing" that "has given much greater clarity to its noted complexities" (1948). It appeared that this reviewer glossed over the Freudian, Oedipal context that many others identified, stating that
Although the piece in Variety magazine was less intellectual in content and approach, it did touch on similar thematic aspects. The article, produced by Variety Staff, was completely positive and celebrated everything about the film. The cuts were dismissed as:
Again, the review did not linger on the Oedipal content, emphasizing the concept, taken from the opening voice-over, of "the tragedy of a man who couldn't make up his mind" (Olivier, 1948) The camera work was given praise and importance, as "deep-focus photography" and "bold crane-shots" that speed the action and give "grandeur and spaciousness" (Variety, 1948)
Olivier's own thoughts and explanations were published as extracts from his book, "Hamlet: The Film and the Play", in September 1948 in the New York Times. He justified the cuts on the basis that the play "is very seldom played in its entirety, even on the stage." (Olivier, 1948). While he accepted that many Shakespeare purists might and did object, he had a valid point that needs to be included here. By creating a cinematic representation, he intended to make Shakespeare accessible to all.
"But think for a moment of the audience reached by the film, who never go to a theatre.."
His comments on the power of the camera to "nose into corners and magnify details that escape notice or pass muster on the stage," echoed the views expressed in the reviews discussed here. His thoughts are included here, not only to illustrate his motives, but also to underline that his intentions seemed to have succeeded, judging by the responses at the time.
Recent reviews, arising from the re-issue of the film on DVD in 2000, carry the same positive responses and echo the themes identified so long ago. This would suggest that the film has the enduring power of the classic, a description fully deserved. In an email thread that reiterates this contention, Brian ...
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