Saturday, September 17, 2011

III.i. To Be or Not to Be - Olivier '48

Having placed this speech between the Nunnery scene and "The play's the thing", far from prying eyes, Olivier gives Hamlet a reason to sincerely deliver the speech. Hamlet has just hurt Ophelia deeply and learned he can trust no one. Without the Players in the mix, he hasn't had the opportunity to think the Mouse-Trap either. As we leave the previous sequence in one of those vertiginous camera moves, we move away from Ophelia's reaching hand (is she seeing the Ghost whose point-of-view Olivier's camera evokes? is this the onset of her madness?) and up, up, up, through walls and dizzying staircases until we land on the back of Hamlet's head, looking down from the highest parapet into the crashing waves below. The camera moves further in, zooming into his head itself - we even see his brain - until we're looking out through his eyes. Whatever spirit the camera represents and whose point of view we share, it can even go into a person's thoughts. It is a four-dimensional experience, with shifting perspectives and superimposed images. Hamlet's forehead with the foaming sea laid on top of it. Shifting back and forth between interior (voice-over) and exterior monologue. His "sea of troubles" in made manifest in the ocean itself, or indeed suggests the metaphor, and becomes a means to achieve the suicide he longs for. The cadence of internal/external monologue moves as the waves do, there is an ebb and flow to it. Say what you will of Olivier's choices (especially regarding some important cuts and restructuring), but he has a visual flair that adds meaning to the words.
He takes out a dagger, reclining on the castle spire, closes his eyes, and almost falls asleep. The camera slowly creeps towards him until a musical sting brings him out of his reverie, pushing the camera back to a more objective POV as he cries "perchance to dream!". Hamlet's lassitude makes him accidentally drop his dagger into the sea, an image of the very inaction the soliloquy uncovers. Not only could that dagger be used to commit suicide, but also to commit murder. Hamlet loses his resolve for either, and again, Olivier visually enhances the idea.

He does so again at the end of the speech. When Hamlet talks about "enterprises of great pith and moment", he stands on the platform, facing outward to his country, its past, his father's deeds, the missing Fortinbras. When they "turn awry" in the speech, he turns back inward, to Elsinore, his problems and his lonely fate. The irony of these lines is revealed. Hamlet's greatness (and Denmark's) is turned awry by his fatal flaw, that of inaction. He leaves with a now complete loss of motivation, his passions waiting to be reignited by the arrival of the Players.

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