Cinema: Olivier's Hamlet

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The question used to be: Can Shakespeare's plays be made into successful movies? With his film production of Henry V (TIME, April 8, 1946), Sir Laurence Olivier settled that question once & for all. But Henry raised another question that it could not answer: Can the screen cope with Shakespeare at his best? Olivier undertook to answer that one, too. One evening next week, at simultaneous previews in Manhattan and Hollywood,* the first U.S. audiences will see the result.

The answer is yes. The screen is indeed adequate to Shakespeare at his greatest—and Director-Actor Olivier's Hamlet is the proof. With this admirable filming of one of the most difficult of plays, the whole of Shakespeare's dramatic poetry is thrown wide open to good moviemakers.

There is also a strong suggestion, in this film Hamlet, that the movies have more than an enlarged medium to give to Shakespeare. A young (19) actress named Jean Simmons, who plays Ophelia, is a product of the movie studios exclusively. Yet she holds her own among some highly skilled Shakespeareans. More to the point, she gives the film a vernal freshness and a clear humanity which play like orchard breezes through all of Shakespeare's best writing, but which are rarely projected by veteran Shakespearean actors.

The New Picture. The man who dares to bring Hamlet, his friends and his antagonists to life has tackled one of the most fascinating and thankless tasks in show business. There can never be a definitive production of a play about which no two people in the world agree. There can never be a thoroughly satisfying production of a play about which so many people feel so personally and so passionately. Very likely there will never be a production good enough to provoke less argument than praise.

It can be said of Olivier's version—purely for the sake of argument—that it contains no single unquestionably great performance, but a complete roll call of fine ones; that it is worked out with intelligence, sensitivity, thoroughness and beauty; that it has everything which high ambition, deep sobriety and exquisite skill can give it.

Henry V was all simple, engaging action, and Olivier gave it a clarion confidence and sweetness. Hamlet is action in near-paralysis, a play of subtle and ambiguous thought and of even subtler emotions. Olivier's main concern has been to keep these subtleties in focus, to eliminate everything that might possibly distract from the power and meaning of the language. He has stripped the play and his production to the essentials. In the process, he has also stripped away a few of the essentials. But on the whole, this is a sternly beautiful job, densely and delicately worked.

The film is black & white, not Technicolor; color feeds the senses and cloys the mind, and this is not a poem of sensuousness, but of sensibility. There is something approaching, if not quite achieving, absolute depth of focus. There is no pageantry and no ornament; the great, lost creatures of the poem move within skull-stark El-sinore-like thoughts and the treacherous shadows of thoughts. (Roger Purse's sets, as nobly severe and useful as the inside of a gigantic cello, are the steadiest beauty in the film. Next best: the finely calculated movement and disposal of the speakers, against his sounding boards.)

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