Sunday, June 30, 2013

HAMLET - 1948

Upfront, I have to confess that I’m not the most fervent fan of Shakespeare’s tragic plays. You know, the ones that climax with death and destruction, leaving all of the major players face down on the stage in percolating pools of blood. Don’t misunderstand me; I can enjoy a heartrending conclusion that ensures the demise of all just as much as the next fellow. And I certainly appreciate the skill and mastery to which Shakespeare employs in crafting his not-so-sunnier tales. But I guess I’m more partial to the Bard’s pen when it sketches a world full of levity, as opposed to some stony-grim reality.

On that note, I can report that Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” emerged to be a pleasant surprise, causing me to reconsider my attitude toward Shakespeare’s tragic woes. To me, this version seemed to concentrate on plucking the strings of a more cerebral refrain attuned to dilemmas of nobility and honor, as opposed to rendering a series of notes composed entirely of madness and tragedy. I think one of the genius qualities of Shakespeare’s writings is that they can be remixed and reinterpreted to yield new perspectives and angles in approaching the material. Not that I’m a big connoisseur of the variety of “Hamlet” interpretations that are out there, but I felt that Olivier’s version tilted more in the direction of preserving principle through thoughtful action.

Directed by Olivier, “Hamlet” assembled seven Oscar nominations, triumphing in four categories, including Best Picture for 1948. This victory marked several firsts in the history of the Academy Awards: The first time a non-American production garnered the top prize; the first time an individual had been nominated for both Best Director and Best Actor; and the first time, and so far the last, that a Shakespearean adaptation has won Best Picture, unless you think a debate should be initiated that somehow “Shakespeare in Love” is a candidate that counts on this point.
However, like all adaptations of famous works, Olivier’s “Hamlet” brewed its own controversy out of the artistic liberties it took with the play’s original text. When presented in its entirety, “Hamlet” typically clocks in at about 4.5 hours, a much greater running time than Olivier’s “Hamlet,” which is about two hours shorter in length. This has led to critics charging that Olivier unnecessarily went all Edward Scissorhands on the script, snipping out large portions of dialogue and cutting out major supporting players, most notably the bumbling duo of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While I can appreciate and respect those purist sentiments whose allegiance is to keeping the original text intact, it’s the effect of Olivier’s cutting and re-stitching of the play that is perhaps at the root of why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. By boiling away so many ingredients of the original story, Olivier’s version is much more lean and focused on singularly conducting a character study into the upheaval of an ambivalent mind. For me, in the context of its traditional running time, this mental tumult is spread over a much larger surface area, reducing my ability to appreciate it as much as when it is presented in a more condensed form.

In keeping with this theme of condensation, the visuals in “Hamlet” also subscribe to a less-is-more approach with equally effective results. Elsinore castle is almost completely stripped bare of any furniture, tapestries or other accoutrements save for some bare essentials. The effect is striking in rendering a visual sterility that generates a cold, eerie atmosphere, underscoring that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” Indeed, corruption and betrayal have taken up residence in Elsinore, seemingly decomposing any evidence of the dwellings of humanity to the extent that only cavernous rooms exist. This absence of material possessions is effective in emphasizing the empty state of the relationships between the inhabitants of the castle.

In combination with these vacant visuals is the eerie cinematography that snakes about the hollow corridors of Elsinore. The continual twisting and turning throughout the maze of passageways eventually grows into becoming a metaphor for Hamlet’s state of mind. During an opening voiceover, Olivier declares that “Hamlet” is “the tragedy of man who could not make up his mind.” With the camera turning left and right in this metaphorical brain, the feeling of Hamlet’s mental anguish rooted in his struggles for reconciling opposing courses of action is rendered visually, not suggesting madness, as is often the adjective used to describe him, but more in line with an inner gridlock. It isn’t until he finally decides to redeem his father and go through with his vengeance on Claudius that the camera’s roaming comes to a halt, indicating that Hamlet has finally decongested his mind by arriving at a path.

This edition of “Hamlet” is not referred to Olivier’s “Hamlet” for nothing. The man adapted, produced, directed and starred in this version, putting his fingerprints all over the film from top to bottom. It’s difficult not to admire Olivier’s passion for this work, which seeps through in every aspect from the quality of the production to the wonderful performances he is able to coach from his roster of players. His own performance tapped into the wavelengths of genuine anguish and despair that it made the entire atmosphere seem concealed in an ever-tightening vice; so much so that I wanted to give Hamlet a couple of Advil to release the headache tension. And the fact that this production can retain such visceral elements more than 60 years later reflects Olivier’s ability to capture the truly classic and enduring features of Shakespeare’s writing, thus producing a classic and enduring film worthy of Oscar’s recognition.

Favorite Line: You could lay out all the pages of “Hamlet” on a wall, randomly throw a dart them and probably have it land on a line or speech that is pretty great. I know it’s not an imaginative selection, but my favorite passage from “Hamlet” is the classic “To be, or not to be” speech.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?—To die,—to sleep,—
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,—’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep: perchance to dream:—ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,—puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

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