Shakespeare November, Branagh vs. Olivier round 2: Hamlet

For round 2 of Branagh vs. Olivier, View from Across the Pond looks at the film that will go down as both of their masterpieces: Hamlet.  Widely regarded as one of the most challenging and greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, “Hamlet” concerns us with the titular character Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, who seeks revenge on the people responsible for his father’s murder.  The role has the most lines of any Shakespearean character and can propel an actor to great heights or make him completely fail.  Fortunately for this reviewer (and to the audience) those two versions of Hamlet are very good, but very different from each other.  So again, with much Ado, here is the reviews of Olivier’s and Branagh’s “Hamlet”.

The Ghost visits Hamlet

Winner of the Oscar Best Picture and Best Actor in 1948, Laurence Olivier’s version of “Hamlet” is a moody, noirish take on the Bard.  Unlike his version of “Henry V” which was done more for the benefit of Propaganda and probably suffered from constraints on creativity, Olivier’s “Hamlet” puts “Hamlet” into a very creative setting while making it as commercially accessible as possible.  The mood, settings, and lighting at Elsinore recall American Film Noir: sets are constantly dressed in shadows where light peeps in and their is often fog and medieval sets that create a sense of detachment and cold.  By being influenced by Film Noir, Olivier creates a sense of darkness and a place where fate ultimately has a final outcome.

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet and Eileen Herlie as Gertrude

Another interesting choice that Olivier makes in this version is the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude (Eileen Herlie).  This version creates an Oedipal Complex where it is interpreted that Hamlet loves Gertrude.  This is an interesting choice and adds a psychological portrait that brings further depth to the characters.  What’s also interesting is that Gertrude sacrafices herself by knowingly drinking the poison to save Hamlet, while in other portrayals she is usually seen as a completely innocent victim.

Olivier is incredible as Hamlet and it is interesting how he portrays Hamlet not as a raving madman, but as a man that cannot make decisions.  While his portrayal is amazing, it is the supporting actors that leave something to be desired.  Jean Simmons is miscast as Ophelia, mainly because she and Olivier lack chemistry, and while Eileen Herlie is an interesting Gertrude, she completely overshadows Basil Sidney as Claudius.  In fact the only other actor that turns a good performance is Peter Cushing as Osric, a bit character that proves more memorable than the people who play Laertes (Terence Morgan), Horatio (Norman Wooland), and Polonius (Felix Aylmar).  The excision of characters such as Rosencratz and Guildenstern, and the elimination of several of Hamlet’s soloquies for commercial length also make the film a bit uneven and certain motivations change as a result of these cuts.  Even though this is a problem, Olivier’s “Hamlet” is still a very good film that has its moments and is interesting to watch.

Derek Jacobi as Cladius, Branagh as Hamlet, and Julie Christie as Gertrude

One thing that Branagh’s “Hamlet” cannot be accused of is cutting anything out.  In fact, Branagh’s Hamlet is the first fully uncut version to use all of Shakespeare’s text on film.  Coming in at 4 hours long and filmed on 65/70 mm film, the movie feels akin to a David Lean epic and gives Hamlet the proper cinematic experience that it deserves.  Like his “Henry V”, Branagh knows how to properly use film to enhance the story rather than distract from it.  By even updating the story to the 19th Century and using the right costumes and set designs, it greatly enhances the film and gives even more power to Shakespeare’s words and characters.

Michael Maloney as Laertes, Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, in the final showdown.

Let’s look at the characters and acting: This film features an all-star cast that includes not only Branagh, but also Derek Jacobi (Claudius), Julie Christie (Gertrude), Kate Winslet (Ophelia), Robin Williams (Osric), Richard Briers (Polonius), Billy Crystal (Gravedigger), Gerard Depardieu (Reynoldo), Charleton Heston (Player King) and numerous others.  While Branagh is obviously brilliant as Hamlet, his keen eye to casting the roles helps make this version of “Hamlet” excel over Olivier’s.  While I often thought that Olivier tended to overshadow the other actors, the cast in this version of “Hamlet” is perfect.  Special kudos goes to not only Jacobi, Christie, and Winslet, but also to Nicholas Farrell as Horatio and Michael Maloney as Laertes.  While these parts often pale in comparison to juicier roles like Hamlet or Ophelia, these actors do an amazing job and provide a great counterpoint to the fire that Branagh displays in Hamlet by keeping the story grounded.  There are also are flashes of humor in the maudlin story (even some coming from Hamlet himself) which also help accentuate the poignancy of the tragedy.

Overall, both of these movies are very good representations of the Bard’s famous “Hamlet” on the screen.  I would have to say that Branagh’s “Hamlet” seems more epic in scope, and it is a shock that he was not even nominated for Actor or Director.  However, please vote in the poll to your final choice!

Olivier’s Hamlet: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

Branagh’s Hamlet: 4 out of 4 stars

Fun Fact: Branagh’s Hamlet was filmed at Blenheim Palace (exteriors only).  Additionally, the Duke of Marlbourough appears in a cameo along with Rufus Sewell (Fortinbras), Rosemary Harris (Player Queen), Simon Russell Beale (Gravedigger), Jack Lemmon (Marcellus), Ian McElhinney (Bernardo), Timothy Spall (Rosencrantz), John Mills (Old Norway), John Gielgud (Priam), Brian Blessed (The Ghost), and Judi Dench (Hecuba)

Fun Fact #2: Counting all of the oscar nominations and awards each performer has in Hamlet, it totals 33 Nominations and 10 wins.

Fun Fact #3: Olivier’s Hamlet was the first film to feature both Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.


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