Sunday, December 8, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction - Olivier '48

Olivier moves this scene to a later position, AFTER Ophelia's burial and Hamlet's return, even conflating it with elements of Scene 5 ("let the great axe fall"), with Claudius capitalizing on Laertes' refreshed grief and anger (this time with Hamlet as the target) to get Laertes on his murderous plan. The front of the sequence moves the characters from the graveyard, up steps into Elsinore. It's there that Laertes is left alone in a way he never is in the play as written, his lines becoming a short soliloquy about what he's lost and the outrages done to his sister, even as he watches the gravedigger shovel dirt into her grave. (It also shows off the set's impressive depth.) But his wish for revenge is overheard by Claudius who recaptures him in that moment.

Through the whole sequence, Laertes seems spent. He's angry at Hamlet, but accepts Claudius' explanations rather easily. Over drinks, the King more or less informs him of the plan. With the cuts to the dialog, Laertes has less to say and when compared to other adaptations, there's less of a sense of a master manipulator making Laertes think it was all his idea to begin with. The Norman cavalier Lamond, for example, is not named (though lovers of the play will find a huge painting of a knight in the room to be in reference to him), only spoken about as a fan of Laertes'. Olivier's cuts weaken the character, and that's a problem for this scene, because Basil Sydney's Claudius is also a weakened character. Weakened more by the two-dimensional, mustache-twirling performance than the cuts, though they of course don't help.

Claudius does get one of his better moments in this scene, however, when he moves over to his throne and fondles it as he speaks his lines about "that we would do". It becomes a confession and justification for his own fratricide (indeed highlighting the idea that Hamlet and Laertes were likely brought up as brothers). It's a testament to Claudius as man of action, the man who acted on a "should", as always in contrast with Hamlet.

Interesting camera movement as the various additions are made to Claudius' plan. It - and we've been trained to think of Olivier's camera as either the Ghost's point-of-view or at least to have some kind of personality and morality - tracks back at the end of each ploy. As pure narration, it wants to leave when the plan is final, but the characters keep drawing it back in to amend it with another lethal element. By the third time, it's almost mocking the complexity of the plan. It feels like a joke. On a moral level, the camera recoils at the murderous instinct, tries to leave though it can't look away. Once done, it moves to another part of the castle and finds Hamlet and Horatio, who will also be making plans and discussing the "would" and the "should", or what Hamlet calls "readiness". Olivier ties the two speeches together by juxtaposing the scenes more closely.


Craig D. said...

It seems like in every post you make about this film, you're pointing out all sorts of neat little things that Olivier is doing as a director, some of which I had noticed before and some I hadn't. Olivier the Director is so much more interesting to me than Olivier the Actor. The former is inventive and exciting, but the latter is just such a drag and does very little for me. I remember reading a quote once from Olivier in which he said that he regretted casting himself in the film and that he should have only directed it, and I agree with him.

Siskoid said...

And I agree with you.