Thursday, July 16, 2009

Act 1 Scene 1 - Olivier 48

Going back in time now to Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning 1948 version, to a definitely "Medieval Gothic" version of Elsinore. The model castle looks like a veritable maze, shrouded in fog and sitting atop a remote cliff.It's a closed and claustrophobic system, perhaps an image of Hamlet's complex and ultimately unknowable mind (unknowable even to himself). You know, there's a high school in my town where, after a rash of juvenile suicides, a crazy story rose up about the floorplan of the school being in the shape of a gun, and that students walking those halls were conditioned to take their own lives by this trajectory. Kids trying to make sense of terrible tragedy, but it's the same idea here. You can imagine Hamlet walking that mad labyrinth and losing himself. And as we'll see each time we revisit the 1948 Hamlet, the camera makes great use of the maze, trolling about looking for action in this room and that. Like we can't quite find Hamlet either.

Olivier adds a prologue to the play, a reading of Scene 4's "Oft it chances in particular men".
Shakespeare's best constructed plays usually have lines or speeches that hold the argument of the play. The above speech, though nominally about Claudius, can also be applied to Hamlet. It can actually be applied to any tragic hero. It's the essence of tragedy - the tragic flaw. Olivier then goes on to pronounce the only words in the film not written by Shakespeare: "This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind." Bleh. Not only does this talk down to the audience, I also don't think it's true. It's not that Hamlet can't make up his mind - i.e. that he has multiple choices and cannot choose between them - it's that he delays acting on his decision until it's too late. The reasons for that delay can vary from interpretation to interpretation, to which it owes part of its longevity. Olivier's reduction probably frustrates me because I'm a "show, don't tell" kind of guy. We'll have to keep Olivier's argument (Hamlet's indecision) in mind as we go through his film.

He also shows us Hamlet high on a "stage", perhaps to explain what "tragedy" means, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say it's to link the end and the beginning - Hamlet as a story told by Horatio. Finally, we get to the play's actual beginning.
Bernardo gives "Who's there?" the same urgency we saw in the Branagh film, but the scene carries far less edginess after that. Bernardo's "Long live the king!" lacks the "!", here hinting at a less than glowing opinion of the new royal Dane. Though the scene is reasonably well played, I do find myself wishing that John Laurie had played Marcellus instead of the tiny role Francisco. His reading of "and I am sick at heart", where he seems to surprise himself with the statement, creates a kind of mystery. Sadly, there's not enough of a role here to reveal just what kind of character Francisco is. An interesting line reading and that's it. Is this old guard only now noticing that something has changed?

New realization: The play begins with a changing of the guard. And of course, the same thing just happened at the royal level. And in fact, by the end of the play, Denmark's bloodline gives way to Norway's.

The Ghost
The Ghost first makes its presence known as a general anxiety among the witnesses. Olivier provides the sound of a heartbeat matched to the beating of the camera's focus. Quite effective, the effect falls on the line "The bell then beating one". He keeps the Ghost himself shrouded in fog, and to make it creepier still, it seems to sometimes be played by a puppet (certainly when it speaks later). What we have here is a stiff undead king, obviously decomposing just as the "rank garden" of Denmark is.

There's a high shot of the witnesses at one point that provides a clue about the camera's oddly detached, voyeuristic style through the rest of the film. Is the camera the Ghost's point of view? In this version, I dare say it is, which means the Ghost is always "on stage", and its reactions will provide more grist for the mill.

Horatio's reaction to the Ghost, aside from freaking out when it approaches (making him cry out "Stay and speak!") is much calmer than in Branagh's version. It makes a certain kind of sense that in a play set before the Age of Reason, the supernatural would be easier to accept. Horatio's beliefs aren't shaken to their very core in this interpretation. These are things that happen, and they are not THAT "wondrous strange".

The Cuts
Norway does not survive Olivier's editing. Obviously, the preparations for war are cut (they usually are), but we also lose any mention of Hamlet Sr.'s role in the former wars. This supports the effect created by the production design. Denmark is isolated to the point of not having much trade with other countries (France and England are still destinations later, however), certainly nothing so intimate as a war.

Cutting out Horatio's long speech brings the Ghost's two appearances together, so he only appears once. Cuts are further made to the exchanges between the men as the cock crows, with one of Horatio's speeches given over to Bernardo. Horatio is no longer the one to talk about the powers of cock's song, leaving the old wives' tales to the soldiers. A small change that puts part of Horatio's paganism in Bernardo's mouth ("the god of day"), leaving none of it in the scene. The references to Rome have been removed and his "Before my God, I might not this believe" now sounds Christian.

Without the uneasiness of a coming war, or the comparison to a nightmarish Rome, Olivier feels the need to get Marcellus' Scene 4 line out right here: "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark." The point just hasn't been made strongly enough.

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