Laurence Olivier's Hamlet: Acting and Cinematography

When I recently showed Laurence Olivier's 1948 Hamlet to a class of college students, two things surprised them.

First, because of what they had had heard about Olivier, they had expected great acting, but they initially found the performances hammy, like "old-fashioned stage acting." After a while, they became used to this more theatrical style, and by the time we reached Hamlet's "get thee to a nunnery" confrontation with Ophelia, most were too caught up in the story to think about the performances. I stopped the movie at this point—embarrassing some students with tear-stained faces—and we discussed what we had seen. A few students still thought that the acting, especially that of Jean Simmons as Ophelia, was overly theatrical, but they all admired the subtlety of Olivier's performance, how, for example, in the "nunnery" scene, his facial expressions tell us that Hamlet finds what he's doing painful. Some students who had seen Mel Gibson and Helena Bonham Carter and/or Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet in the same scene thought that Olivier and Simmons's performance was better.

Laurence Olivier and Jean
Simmons in act three, scene one.
Image from the Boston Becks.
If I had started the class by playing those performances back to back, the students would probably have ranked Olivier and Simmons a distant third. For the uninitiated, the acting in Olivier's Shakespeare films takes some getting used to, but, as is true of so many things, newbies who give it a chance may discover a new pleasure.

Though it took a while for my students to appreciate the acting in Olivier's Hamlet, they were immediately impressed by its cinematography. This was their second surprise: they had thought of Olivier primarily as an actor and didn't know that he was also a tremendously creative director.

That creativity shows itself in Olivier's use of swooping camera movements and lap dissolves to reflect Hamlet's predicament and thoughts. The film's transition from what would be the play's first to its second scene provides a good example. We end the first scene on the castle tower, with Horatio and the soldiers agreeing to tell Hamlet about the Ghost. Olivier swings the away from these characters and spirals it down through the tower's interior. The camera turns around and around until we see the empty court, at which point the camera dives down and hovers over Hamlet's empty chair. It then turns and moves toward the hall leading to Ophelia's room. For a moment, we hear the sweet melody that will accompany her scenes, and then the music intensifies as we swoop up toward a window. We move through the window into the royal bedroom, coming close to the bed's rumpled sheets before the shot dissolves into one of Claudius drinking, the beginning of the second scene.

The wild camera movements and final dissolve foreshadow Hamlet's story and his first soliloquy, which Olivier delivers from the chair we have just seen. Hamlet begins the soliloquy with a death wish and then moves to the source of that wish—his disgust at his mother's remarriage. At the soliloquy's climax, we learn that his revulsion rises from the thought of Gertrude having sex with Claudius: "O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" (1.2.156-57). Before we hear these lines, Olivier provides us with a visual representation of them, his lap dissolve from the rumpled sheets to Claudius's face.

Olivier wasn't the first director to use camera movements and dissolves to reflect his protagonist's thoughts. German Expressionist and film noir directors did this as well. But Olivier and Orson Welles were the first to use these techniques in a Shakespeare movie. Neither director seems to have influenced the other in doing this: though Welles's Macbeth was released in December 1948, seven months after Olivier's Hamlet, it had been shot and edited the previous year.

The end of Kane's childhood.
Both films take advantage of deep focus, a technique in which the foreground and background of a shot are in clear focus. As film buffs know, Welles fully exploited the technique in his 1941 Citizen Kane, where he frequently uses it to show Kane's isolation from other characters. For example, as we watch Kane's mother sign the papers that will make an East Coast banker his guardian, through a window in the background we can see the boy Kane playing in the snow, perhaps his last experience of real happiness. In that shot, Welles uses deep focus to render the moment that separates Kane from other people. Later in the film, he uses it to show the growing distance between Kane and his employees, friends, and wife.

Olivier uses deep focus in the same way, to show the distance between his protagonist and other characters. The best example comes at the end of what would be the play's third scene. In that scene, Laertes warns Ophelia to be wary of Hamlet's intentions. As a prince, Hamlet can't be interested in marrying her: "He may not, as unvalued persons do, / Carve for himself" (19-20). Hamlet wants sex, not marriage. This view of his intentions is contradicted at Ophelia's grave, first when Gertrude says that she hoped Ophelia would have become Hamlet's wife (5.1.228)—if the queen saw nothing wrong with his marrying a courtier's daughter, then presumably there wasn't—and second when Hamlet says, "I loved Ophelia" (254).

Ophelia looks at Hamlet.
His declaration hints at the tragic love story that Olivier begins developing in his version of the third scene. After Felix Aylmer's Polonius orders Jean Simmons's Ophelia not to speak to Hamlet again, he turns away to get a drink, and Ophelia looks down a long corridor. Over her shoulder, at the end of corridor, Hamlet sits in his usual chair, so clearly in focus that we can see him turn to look back at Ophelia. At this moment, Polonius, who from his angle can't see down the corridor, interrupts the lovers' gazing and tells his daughter, "Come your ways" (135). Olivier then gives us a deep focus shot from Hamlet's perspective. Over the prince's shoulder, down the long hall, we watch a tiny Ophelia turn and walk away.

Hamlet looks at Ophelia.
These deep-focus shots, as impressive as any in Citizen Kane, almost didn't happen. Olivier originally wanted to film Hamlet in color, which he had used effectively in his 1944 Henry V. A disagreement with the Technicolor company made him start thinking about filming in black and white, and he eventually decided that Technicolor's "tangerine and apricot faces" weren't the ones he wanted "to haunt [his] melancholy Hamlet" (On Acting 286). Having settled on black and white, he took every possible advantage of deep-focus cinematography, which wasn't available in color at the time. It would be by the time he filmed his 1955 Richard III, which combines deep focus and Technicolor to create a menacing, fairy-tale atmosphere.

Black and white fits Hamlet's more meditative mood, so we can be grateful for Olivier's disagreement with the Technicolor company the way we're grateful for Welles's not knowing that you "couldn't" film ceilings because that space was needed for microphones. Both accidents resulted in better films. Instead of telling Welles that he couldn't shoot ceilings, his cinematographer Gregg Toland worked with the set designer to figure out a way to do this, which allowed for the many upward-angle interior shots that Welles uses to represent Kane's power. And instead of repeating what he had done with the cinematography in Henry V, Olivier created something entirely new, a Shakespeare film that we can hang beside Citizen Kane on the wall of cinematic masterpieces.