December 19, 2015

Laurence Olivier, Henry V

Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor | Special Academy Award - Actor, Producer, Director
After having watched Laurence Olivier play the role of the heartthrob in films like Wuthering Heights, Rebecca, and Pride & Prejudice to somewhat mixed reviews, I was excited to see him graduate to the next phase of his career, that of the Shakespearean Olivier, the Olivier that most everyone thinks him to be. Or, rather more simply put, the actor Olivier.
I'd like to note that I have no familiarity with the play or the King whatsoever, so I can't quite benchmark Olivier's work to the actual written Shakespearean character. But my very first impression here was that this was a rather loud performance. And as was the case with Wuthering Heights, I think that if I were to close my eyes and listen to his impassioned orations, I would be of the belief that this is a more firehouse performance that it actually is. Olivier's voice is most definitely a powerful tool that does wonders to verbose characters in literary adaptations. But my second impression was that if you just took Olivier away and threw in another capable English actor, could he not perform in a similar sort of loudness as well? I suppose what I'm getting at here was that, in spite of his miraculous vocal abilities, I don't believe Olivier ever really, truly seeps into the material and the words to become somebody else. Looking at him perform is to look at someone who speaks very well, but is playing dress-up and never really bringS the words to absolute life with his face. That's a hefty remark of criticism for a mere mortal such as myself to make given that Lord Olivier is so revered as an actor, but perhaps it's his very school of acting that I can't wrap my head around. There are moments that I thought were excellent--there's a prolonged shot on his face as he is eaten up by the night, and he gazes off with a brooding intensity that said so much more to me than his wordy speeches. There's that last stretch of the film where he is wooing Kate, and must rely on utilizing charm rather than the crutch of loud-speak to articulate characterizations such as 'leadership' or 'dominance'. The very first moment we lay eyes on Olivier in the film, he is just a man standing behind a curtain, ready to take the stage and wow the hell out everyone at the Globe Theatre, and you are excited in that moment because you are anticipating something out of this world. But all in all, I think that this is good enough work. That out-of-this-world something is still yet to be found. I still crave more from him, and if this is the actor Olivier that is to be expected...then I will be having a very ambivalent relationship with him over the remainder of his 10 nominations.

1 comment:

  1. I think what your noticing and hitting upon in your review is that Olivier was a rather cerebral actor who worked from the outside in ... that is to say, he focused on the appearance, mannerisms, gestures and vocalisms of his characters to create them, which is the antithesis of Method acting. It's more theatrical in its way, but film is a rather intimate medium and requires a more internal, visceral process.

    You are, in my opinion, completely on target in what you perceive as what is missing in his performance. It's very showy, almost florid at times, yet it lacks true passion and heart. I've always found Olivier to be an extremely chilly performer, i.e., all head and no heart. He's very tactical in how he approaches a role but never truly inhabits the character ... and that is quite true of "Henry V", which was filmed and released in 1944 in England but not released stateside until two years later, hence the nomination in this year's category.

    I must say, I do like this movie quite a lot and think it is the best Shakespearean film Olivier ever did. It's cleverly framed and has sweep and grandeur, much more cinematic than anything that followed. Still, I find myself admiring his performance more than appreciating and embracing it. I'm impressed, sometimes astonished at his grasp of Shakespearean verse ... and yet in the end, utterly unmoved.

    By the way, this is another insightful review to add to your roster.