Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet: To Be Or Not To Be

Written by William Shakespeare and directed by Laurence Olivier, this is Hamlet, a tale of tragedy and revenge set in medieval Denmark. The King’s brother, Claudius (Basil Sydney), scheming with the Queen (Eileen Herlie), allows Claudius to poison to the King and take her as his bride. Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) is son of the dead king, stricken with grief over his father’s death and bitter at his mother for marrying his uncle when his father’s body is barely cold. Given the circumstances, I think he deserves some slack.

Hamlet is confronted by his father’s ghost and informed of the nature of his murder. With revenge in his heart, Hamlet creates a play that retells the story of the Death of the King. With the help of a travelling theatre troop, he aims to torment the conscience of his uncle, King Claudius. One thing leads to another and in a meeting with his mother, he accidentally kills a conniving counsellor Polonius (Felix Aylmer), father of Ophelia (Jean Simmons) and Laertes (Terence Morgan). Hamlet is sent to England for his crime.

Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) with his love Ophelia (Jean Simmons) in this Shakespearean tragedy
(Hamlet, Universal Pictures)

Laurence Olivier (Rebecca) is one of many actors to have played Hamlet over the years, including Kenneth Brannagh, Jude Law, David Tennant and Stephen Dillane to name few. This mid twentieth-century adaptation is one of many, and a slow-moving one at that. Starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, this is still a memorable picture with its lead performance being the film’s driving force. Though, its supporting cast are great too. This is very much a performance film, as it is an extension of the play it is based on.

Olivier’s performance is masterclass, his directing less so. It’s good but not great. The movie takes the term “slow-burn” to new levels and it could have been just as good at two hours rather than its extended two and a half-hour running time. The play has been stripped down from its source material. The final product is a character study on one of the most interesting characters in all of fiction, Hamlet. The film is too long but the length allows Olivier to really make this role his own, even if his direction suffers at the hands of it.

Laurence Olivier gives a wonderfully dark performance as Prince Hamlet of Denmark
(Hamlet, Universal Pictures)

The direction is good, but I feel the film would have done better if someone else had directed it. I think Olivier took too much on by having directing Hamlet as well as starring in it. Whilst the direction is okay, the film makes up for it in other ways, such has cinematography and great dialogue. “To be or not to be, that is the question” says Hamlet. And Olivier delivers that monologue wonderfully, to a point I think the Bard himself would have been proud of. Laurence Olivier is a truly a tour de force.

Hamlet is one of the most interesting characters ever written. He’s depicted as a man who “could not make up his mind” and his low-key performance in the role shows Olivier’s skill in theatre but also his approach and understanding of the character’s inner-turmoil and moral dilemmas. Olivier has an excellent screen presence and delivers Hamlet’s immortalised lines in a unique way that represents many paths in the character’s future. There are many roads to the same castle and this performance cannot be forgotten.

Basil Sydney as the King’s brother, the deceitful murderer Claudius
(Hamlet, Universal Pictures)

While this is not the greatest version of the play, it is certainly one of the best studies of the character. With excellent performances and costume design, Hamlet is the Best Picture winner for 1948, though it could have easily gone to another movie.

Olivier gives a great performance as the Prince of Denmark, but he’s no Benedict Cumberbatch: he’s the real Hamlet