Thursday, December 6, 2007

HAMLET (Two Cities Films Ltd. 1948) Criterion


Shakespeare has always been ‘iffy’ box office. Warner Bros. tried their hand with a glossy but failed attempt at A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). MGM gave luster to Romeo & Juliet (1936) – a critical success, and, later Julius Caesar (1953).

Though the latter two made money, they did not yield epic returns. Hence, and for its day, Lawrence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) was considered a minor coup – both an artistic and financial zeitgeist - even if, from today’s vantage, it vaguely has a whiff of formaldehyde about it.

Olivier stars as the vane Dane whose world is turned upside down when his mother, Queen Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) marries his Uncle Claudius (Basil Sydney) – now, the King, and shortly after his father’s death/murder.The greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Hamlet has always presented something of a problem in translation from stage to screen.

Despite Olivier’s fairly marvelous attempt, this version falls into all the expected pitfalls. Olivier himself is over theatrical, stoic and not terribly engaging as the blonde moppet/hero in spandex. His performance seems in hindsight quite over rehearsed when compared to the rest of the cast who do not appear to be channeling their reverence directly from the late bard of Avon.

Particularly satisfying are Jean Simmons as Hamlet’s ill-fated lover, Ophelia and Felix Aylmer as her empathetic father, Polonius. Shot entirely on soundstages in England, which prevent the film from being anything more than a static series of tableaus, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences clearly disagreed with my assessments – bestowing Oscars on Olivier and the film. It’s difficult to deduce the ‘why’ of it now, though perhaps then Olivier’s was the first ambitious stab at immortalizing the play and therefore represented something of a first, which sadly, very often equates to ‘best’ in the eyes of Academy voters.

It must be noted that in the grand old days of laserdisc, Criterion Home Video represented the upper echelons of home entertainment. The company’s commitment to the preservation and restoration of rare and obscure films, as well as certified film history resulted in luxurious transfers and extra features that other company’s simply failed to embrace. Hence, the argument then could have been made in defense of spending upwards of a hundred dollars for their limited editions because what the consumer received for that money was far above what other studios were offering.

However, in this current climate where even the most modest DVD release rates an audio commentary, theatrical trailer and usual featurette, Criterion’s continued lofty price tags for similar extras is quite simply unwarranted.

The gray scale on this B&W transfer is good, though the print lacks definition. It also suffers from low contrast levels and a considerable amount of film grain that translates more to digital grit. Age related artifacts are everywhere. Edge enhancement and shimmering crop up and somewhat distracts. The audio is MONO but well balanced. Extras include an audio commentary and some junket materials.Criterion ought to reconsider the DVD market for what it has become. With every studio offering ‘Special Editions’ there is nothing to support paying extra for something anyone could get just as easily elsewhere for quite a bit less!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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