Laurence Olivier Parker Tyler - Essay

Anthony Holden

Parker Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 837 words.)