Laurence Olivier Essay - Critical Essays

Anthony Holden

Olivier, (Baron) Laurence


(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.

Bosley Crowther

["Henry V" is] a stunningly brilliant and intriguing screen spectacle, rich in theatrical invention, in heroic imagery and also gracefully regardful of the conventions of the Elizabethan stage….

Certainly the story in this chronicle could not have lured Mr. Olivier too much, nor could the chance to explore a complex character have been the bait to draw him on. For the reasons for Henry's expedition against France, as laid down in the play, are neither flattering to him nor to his churchly counselors. The Bishops conspire to urge Henry to carry his claims against France in order to distract the Commons from confiscating their lands; and Henry apparently falls for it, out of sheer royal vanity and greed. His invasion of France is quite clearly a war of aggrandizement, and his nature appears slightly naive when he argues the justice of his cause.

But that, of course, is Shakespeare; and Mr. Olivier and his editor, Reginald Beck, have not attempted to change it. They have simply cut large chunks out of the play, especially the plot of the traitors, to get at the action and the meat. Thus reduced of excessive conversations (though it might have been trimmed even more), they have mounted the play with faithful service to the spirit and the word. That service is as truly magnificent as any ever given to a Shakespearian script…. (p. 2122)

The tumult of the armorers' preparations, the stretch of bow-men...

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James Agee

Henry V was all simple, engaging action, and Olivier gave it a clarion confidence and sweetness. Hamlet is action in near-paralysis, a play of subtle and ambiguous thought and of even subtler emotions. Olivier's main concern has been to keep these subtleties in focus, to eliminate everything that might possibly distract from the power and meaning of the language. He has stripped the play and his production to the essentials. In the process, he has also stripped away a few of the essentials. But on the whole, this is a sternly beautiful job, densely and delicately worked. (p. 389)

There is little novel interpretation of character: even that might distract from the great language, or distort it. There is no clear placement in time, no outside world except blind sky, faint landscapes, ruminant surf, a lyrical brook…. The production is as austere, and as grimly concentrated, as Henry V was profuse and ingratiating. Only the wild, heartfelt, munificent language is left at liberty.

Olivier was determined to make the play clear in every line and every word—even to those who know nothing of Shakespeare. For the most part, he manages to elucidate even the trickiest turns of idiom by pantomime or a pure gift for thought transference. But wherever it has seemed necessary, old words have been changed for new. (pp. 389-90)

In the process of cutting a 4-hour play to 2 hours' playing time, the editing has also been very drastic in...

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Arthur Vesselo

Olivier's Hamlet calls for the fullest critical consideration. It is elaborate, skilful and, in patches, excellent; but it is also in patches tedious, and its methods raise the whole question of how best Shakespeare can be translated into film terms, if the thing is to be done at all. There are only two basic approaches in the adaptation of a stage-play to the screen: the one is to concentrate above all on the film and to chop and change, to add and subtract, as the nature of the film medium demands; the other is to concentrate first and foremost on faithfulness to the original, and to let accepted film methods go hang wherever they interfere with this aim. In the case of Shakespeare, there is no doubt whatever which course must be followed, if only because of the outcry which a film-maker would have to face if he dared to tamper to any extent with a Shakespeare play (as witness the arguments even over the excisions, made obviously with the greatest care, that were necessary to bring "Hamlet" down to a possible screen running-time); but it seems that Olivier has still thought that he might be able, by some ingenious tricks of technique, to get the best of both worlds.

This is presumably the explanation of the long and tiring moving shots through the castle of Elsinore; of the exaggerations of physical action, here and there, where attention should on the contrary be focused almost entirely on the words; of the...

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Parker Tyler

Let me not seem to underrate the superior intelligence that has gone into many phases of [Olivier's] filmic Hamlet; it is not an outrage on taste and achieves a few illuminated moments. But I take it as a bad movie simply because it is far more conscious of being traditional cinema than of being traditional theatre…. (p. 528)

The way in which this Hamlet best succeeds is, alas! that of a certain approved film-pattern: the action in relation to the camera movement is always tactful, physically appropriate; one never quite meets a boring staticity of image. When the movie ended, my own chief impression was, however, not of the drama itself, the strange humanity and poetic elevation, the simple depth of spirit in the work; it was merely that Hamlet's story took place, that Shakespeare's Denmark held a special castle, with such long halls and lofty ceilings, certain winding stairs, shadowy nooks, and stately columns. Thus I had seen an invention of archaeological documentation, and little more to add to my experience of the play. It was the same with Henry V, but there at least the spirit of archaeology and history obviously applied. If it be thought that Olivier achieved this effect in Hamlet only by the way, Olivier's own testimony may be cited aside from the fact that Hamlet's personal exit on his bier is turned into a prolonged ritual march as his corpse is borne up a continuous flight of stairs past the principal backgrounds of the previous action. Olivier has displaced the internal view of Hamlet as an individual's drama into an external view of it as the Tragedy of Elsinore. (pp. 528-29)

The whole interpretive problem of the chief role is that Hamlet should somehow be a lucid positive, not an opaque negative. Olivier's strategy was to pretend to honor the traditional "mystery" of Hamlet's hesitation while he patently accepted the quasi-scientific Oedipal interpretation, as more than one touch of stage-business indicates. A very...

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Henry Raynor

In making Hamlet, Olivier emphasised the fact that his film was an "Essay" in interpretation, and in doing so did much to disarm criticism. (p. 10)

Olivier's description of his own Hamlet makes it possible to be more lenient than we might otherwise have been to the oddities of Alan Dent's revised script. Olivier has plucked, it seems, the heart out of Hamlet's mystery…. "This," Olivier said of his film by way of introduction, "is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." There is sufficient tradition, theatrical as well as scholarly, behind this to make it irrelevant to suggest that the play contains subtleties hardly explained by such a simplification. Olivier has given...

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Derek Prouse

A shot of the crown of England, held high, opens Laurence Olivier's adaptation of Shakespeare's Richard III …; a close-up of the new king, Edward IV, tense, almost incredulous, and then the crown descends with ambiguous firmness upon his head…. The mood has been instantly and excitingly set, in a brilliant expansion of the play—for this opening scene is actually the last scene of Henry VI, Part Three, and it also makes a highly effective prologue to the introduction of Gloucester that follows. A Gloucester not exaggeratedly repellent, who will assume his full depravity through subtler means than greasepaint as the action unfolds; his first soliloquy (shot with remarkable agility in a single take)...

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James E. Phillips

[The film version of Richard III] simplifies and clarifies the basic political situation on which the entire plot action depends. Shakespeare's original relied on an Elizabethan audience's general knowledge of the Wars of the Roses, which were then no more remote than the Civil War is to present day American audiences, for an understanding of the intricate dynastic tangle in which Richard was involved…. By judicious cutting and rearrangement of Shakespearean material, supplemented by equally judicious borrowings from the Henry VI trilogy, Sir Laurence's adaptation deftly sketches the outlines of the family brawl that constitutes the action of the play. (pp. 399-400)

[However] are there...

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Philip T. Hartung

Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier evidently thought Terence Rattigan's play, "The Sleeping Prince," worthy of their talents as producers. But Rattigan's thin little comedy, about an American chorus girl who stirs an aging and stodgy Carpathian grand duke into action, although a great hit in London, created little interest in New York. The movie, with a script written by Rattigan, does afford the two leads plenty of opportunity to display their individual abilities and they make the most of them. "The Prince and the Showgirl", as the film is called, is still pretty slight; and even under Laurence Olivier's capable direction, the jokes and situations strain to be naughty and funny. As a Technicolor reproduction of...

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Penelope Houston

In directing his first non-Shakespearean film [The Prince and the Showgirl], Laurence Olivier has kept mainly to a stage tempo. Lines are theatrically pointed, pauses held, the pace is muted. This method throws the performances into high relief, and it is inevitably for its playing, its much-publicised union of talents, that the film will be seen. Olivier himself repeats his stage performance, an accomplished exercise in building a sizeable pile of bricks without a great deal of straw….

Mildly entertaining, The Prince and the Showgirl remains in essence what it initially seemed in the stage production—lemonade in a champagne bottle. (p. 41)


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Rupert Butler

The coupling of Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl represents one of the shrewdest gimmicks in show-business; the film was guaranteed maximum curiosity value before one foot of it was shot. I found the combination of these two stars irresistible and salute a brave attempt to inject Ruritanian dash into the rather dreary provincialism of so much British Cinema. (p. 21)

One has become accustomed over the years to a certain amount of filmed theatre but there comes a time when stage conventions prove altogether too much for a predominantly visual medium. Characters' entrances and exits, perfectly natural in a theatre, can appear on the screen as patently artificial...

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Constance A. Brown

Richard III in particular offers as much as can reasonably be expected of a film. In Olivier's hands, one of Shakespeare's better plays (certainly not one of his best) is transformed into an intricate, subtle, coolly ironic plunge into one of those recesses of human nature that are generally avoided through the same fastidious impulses that make the manufacture of sewer covers a profitable business. In its rather stylized way, Richard is an extraordinarily honest film, and requires proportional honesty from anyone who hopes to assess it correctly—which may partly account for the fact that so far no one has bothered….

Olivier's alterations of Richard III are so numerous that...

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Judith Crist

Once again we are faced with a neither-film-nor-play production [Three Sisters], but it is, in Moura Budberg's liberal but satisfying translation and under Olivier's semicinematic direction, one at very least to fascinate devotees of the play….

Through several performances, in Geoffrey Unsworth's luscious cinematography (and I mean the adjective in praise of the uncluttered and naturally generated glow his work achieves), and in the pacing there is somehow a sensuality and a sexuality underlying the work that I had not hitherto felt. This gives it an immediacy and a throb of life that avoid the by-now strictly-from-satire "I vunt to go to Moscow" stiltedness the play achieves…. Primarily,...

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Foster Hirsch

In making Hamlet (in 1947), Olivier was concerned, as he had been with Henry V, about avoiding the static quality of filmed theater. Without sacrificing the integrity of the play, he wanted to give visual fluency to theatrical material. Hamlet, of course, is radically different from Henry V, and in moving from the extroverted spectacle of the chronicle play to Shakespeare's most introverted chamber drama, Olivier altered his style severely: the dark, moody, claustrophobic atmosphere of this second adaptation provides a striking contrast to the bright holiday tones of Henry. (p. 79)

Set in cavernous, sparsely furnished rooms in which the vast space is fragmented by...

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