Laurence Olivier Critical Essays

Anthony Holden


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

(Baron) Laurence Olivier 1907–

British director, actor and producer.

Olivier has directed several successful adaptations of Shakespearean plays, although he is probably best known for his role as protagonist in these films. Though Olivier takes liberties with plot and characterization, most critics feel that his alterations lend new depth to Shakespeare's work.

Olivier's theatrical career began at the age of eleven with a role in Julius Caesar. Though versatile in any form of drama, Olivier developed a special affinity for Shakespeare. Fillipo del Guidice, an Italian film director, offered Olivier the opportunity to create his own cinematic versions of Shakespeare's plays. Olivier was reluctant, believing that these works were suitable only for the stage. However, he decided that "something had to be done to give the plays a reality that was acceptable to the new audience without outraging the reality of Shakespeare." Critics generally agree that Olivier succeeded admirably in his versions of Henry V, Hamlet, and Richard III. While using innovative techniques, he retained the eloquence of Shakespeare's works.

Olivier next directed the film adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play The Sleeping Prince. Entitled The Prince and the Showgirl, the film has a light romantic content which contrasts strongly with his previous work. However, some critics found it relying too heavily on conventions of the stage.

In making The Three Sisters for the American Film Theatre, Olivier chose not to alter Chekhov's work as he had Shakespeare's. He attempted to preserve the play exactly as written, without incorporating any stylistic innovations. Many critics were disappointed in Olivier's film, which lacked his usual originality of translation from stage to screen.

Olivier's distinctions have not been limited to artistic endeavors. He was knighted in 1947 and in 1970 was created baron.