Plot: What’s it about?
This is a story that has been told time and time again, so instead of wasting your time and mine, I’ll just give a very brief overview of this adaptation and address one complaint some folks have with this version. The complaint I hear most about this film is the excision of the Rosencrantz and Guilderstern characters, whom so many people seem to like. I think it’s because of the film Rosencrantz And Guilderstern Are Dead, but I suppose we all have our reasons one way or the other. Their absence here (along with other non main characters and some rather familiar dialogue pieces) doesn’t have much effect, as the film more than compensates with skillful acting and brisk pacing. The storyline centers on Hamlet (Sir Laurence Olivier), a Danish prince who seems to have everything go wrong at the same time. His father is murdered by his uncle, who then marries his mother. This enrages Hamlet of course, who vows to avenge his father and make sure justice is served. On the path to this goal, Hamlet has to deal with such obstacles as his own mother, his tempestuous girlfriend, and even inner self doubt. How will all this turn out? Only one way to find out…
It seems whenever an actor needs to prove his thespian mettle, he tries to do so by tackling the lead role in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We’ve seen Mel Gibson show his stuff and even Keanu Reeves tried on the role in a stage version, but the true legend of Hamlet is Sir Laurence Olivier. Olivier played the title role and also directed this 1948 rendition of the classic tale and even after all these years, his vision is still the finest example of the story to hit the silver screen. This is a visually impressive film in all respects, but also features terrific performances from the entire cast. >From Olivier’s lead to the smallest role to be found, the cast is more than up to the task in this one and it shows. The costumes look good, the set design is solid, and it just seems like everything comes together at just the right time. This is a true classic in every sense of the word and it has a Best Picture Oscar as a testament to that. This film deserves a look from film fans of all types, but if you even have the slightest inkling to own this classic, this is the perfect chance to add Hamlet to your collection.
The driving force behind this rendition of Hamlet is Sir Laurence Olivier, who serves as both director and lead actor in the film. With such heavy responsibilities you might think Olivier falters on one or other, but he comes through like a champ on both counts. Olivier’s skills in the material of Shakespeare are well known of course, but I have to say that I think is his finest work. His directing work on Richard III (1954) and Henry V (1944) stands as excellent even after all this time, but his Hamlet is his signature project, at least in my eyes. Olivier and his crew use some effective camera pans and moves to convey tone at times and though I can’t put my finger on it, I know there’s something intangible about the visuals that strike the right chords with me. As an actor Olivier (The Boys From Brazil, Spartacus) shines as Hamlet and I can find very little to no flaws within his performance. He seems like the definitive version of the character and always will be to me, which is a real compliment to a film over fifty years old and remade almost on a yearly basis. The rest of the cast is excellent too though and includes Christopher Lee (The Satanic Rites Of Dracula), Jean Simmons (Tv’s Dark Shadows), John Laurie (The Reptile), Basil Sydney (Treasure Island), Eileene Herlie (Tv’s All My Children), Felix Aylmer (The Magic Bow), and Peter Cushing (Star Wars).
Video: How does it look?
Hamlet is presented in a full frame transfer, which preserves the original aspect ratio of the film. The image is as sharp as a tack, with a clean source print and minimal compression faults. I was sometimes stunned at how clear this transfer is, as previous editions have been heavy with debris and nicks. The contrast is excellent in all respects, as is vital for a black & white film. The shadow depth is very nice and black level balance is dead on, which means detail is always high. This is better than I expected and once again, Criterion has saved a classic.
Audio: How does it sound?
This is an adequate audio presentation, but not as sharp and clear as I would have liked. Of course, with material this old you can’t be too critical, but I still think this could have turned out better than this. There is some moderate distortion evident at times, sometimes much worse than ever. This never becomes extreme or distracting, but you can tell and as such, it is worth mentioning. The distortion is usually present in the musical aspects of the sound, but sometimes can be heard in the vocals. No serious problems, but still worth the mention. When it sounds good though, it sounds good and crisp vocals and distinct effects emerge. English subtitles also make this disc, so if you need them then you’re covered.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Aside from some informative liner notes, this disc contains no bonus materials. As always, color bars have been included to fine tune your picture, but I don’t consider that an extra.