Hamlet (1948)

Laurence Olivier triumphed as actor and director in this stark and imposing screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s drama of tragic uncertainty.

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Introduction

“A landmark in Shakespeare productions on screen, the proof that anything can be done.”
David Thomson, Have You Seen...? 2008

A dispute with Technicolor prompted Laurence Olivier to shoot his Hamlet in black and white, a happenstance crucial to the film’s success, since its studio-created vision of castle of Elsinore as a labyrinth of shadows and light created an unforgettable context for a trimmed-down version of Shakespeare’s text.

Olivier’s graceful verse reading contributes to his psychologically acute portrayal of the Danish prince, whose troubled family circumstances draw him inexorably towards his own mortality, although Eileen Herlie (11 years his junior) proved a controversial choice as his errant mother Gertrude. Deft camera movements along corridors and staircases, stalking the characters like fate itself, show how fully Olivier conceived the work in terms of cinema, and he landed Oscars for best picture and best actor.

There are also notable screen adaptations of the play by directors Grigori Kozintsev (1964, in Russian), Franco Zeffirelli (1990) and Kenneth Branagh, who also starred in his 1996 version.

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