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It is the greatest work of literature in history. In the decade after it was written in 1603, printed versions of Hamlet outsold every other authorís complete works. Want to see a film version of Hamlet? You have more than 65 to choose from. Only one took home the big prize of course, and that was the 1948 version directed by and staring Lawrence Olivier.
If you are an actor, this role is something of a lifetime achievement award. Olivier earned it by playing Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, one of AFIís top 100 films of all time, Maxim in Hitchcockís best picture winner Rebecca, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and by staring in and directing a wartime version of Henry V, Shakespeareís definition of Englishness.
To turn in a successful performance of Hamlet, an actor has to nail two scenes, the greatest monologue of all time in act 3, scene 1 ("To be or not to be, that is the question") and my own personal favorite scene, the exchange with Claudius in act 4, scene 3. The former Olivier plays better than anyone else, standing atop the guard post where the ghost of the slain king was first spotted. The latter comes off, in my opinion, a bit flat. Olivier plays it with a certain subtlety, which seems out of place considering he is laying it on thick with the craziness act immediately afterward.
Olivier is not the only one who turns in a topnotch performance. Jean Simmons does a wonderful job as Ophelia, especially the later scene following the death of her father when she has gone mad. Another great performance is turned in by Eileen Herlie as the Queen. With only 12 screen credits to her name (and two of them Gertrude, here and in Richard Burtonís 1964 version) she has little experience for such a huge part, but she displays an exceptional amount of talent.
This is an abridged version. Kenneth Branagh filmed an unabridged version in 1996 which clocks in at over four hours. This one is just over two and a half hours. Included in the cuts were several entire characters, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which eliminates a lot of Hamletís better lines, and Fortinbras, who in the play is the one sitting on the throne of Denmark at the end. His final lines in tribute to Hamlet are given to Horatio.
Olivier also skips around quite a bit in the middle. Hamletís "Get thee to a nunnery" exchange with Ophelia comes before the "to be or not to be" speech here, despite being later in the same scene in the play. The arrival of the players, which happens before either of those things in the play, is after both in the movie. Purists might be very offended by these changes, but I think it works. "To be or not to be" is Hamlet at his lowest point, contemplating suicide, and Olivier places it before the arrival of the players, an event which presents Hamlet with a strategy to catch the king.
And the performance of "Mousetrap" is one of the best scenes in the movie. Basil Sydney, who plays Claudius, knocks one out of the park here, writhing in agony as he sees his own treachery acted out before him. The best little detail of this scene is that the audience has their eyes trained not on the players, but on the king, seeing his pained expression just as Hamlet does.
The other best picture nominees that year were Johnny Belinda, The Red Shoes, The Snake Pit, and Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The last one is the only one that has had any lasting reputation, and won the best directing, and best screenplay Oscar for John Huston. It isnít remotely in the same league as Hamlet however.