Apr 18, 2016

Laurence Olivier, Hamlet

Won: Academy Award - Best Actor | New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor | Golden Globe Award - Best Actor

It's Laurence Olivier's most famous Shakespearian performance! I had my doubts going into Hamlet, primarily because I've been fairly underwhelmed by his method of acting in his first three nominated performances. But those roles - Heathcliff, Max de WinterHenry V - those are different, more stoic men to Hamlet. So it was nice to see from the get-go an instant change of tone in Olivier, who appears as a more tender, vulnerable individual than I am used to.

From his opening scene, we are witness to a different Olivier. He is downtrodden and heartbroken, and when he launches into his first monologue he has a fragility to him that I hadn't yet seen. He's unusually fragile, and it's this despair which lays a foundation for this performance as Hamlet teeters a fine line between vengeful conviction and madness. These twangs of delicacy in scenes such as this as well as the scene in which he confronts his father's ghost makes him such an absorbing presence, and for once I felt as though Olivier can channel and feel beyond the power of verse. And as with all his performances, Olivier's vocal work in Hamlet is top notch. The words flow out of his mouth with smooth consistency, and tonally he seems to live the words in which he speaks. Considering that he's dealing with a rawer character this time around, this makes for some explosive acting moments (I'm thinking about his major scene with his mother). But basically, whenever the man was on screen it was hard to not be completely taken by him - with him leading the charge, had the film been five hours like the original play I don't think I'd have minded. Is it the best performance of the Hamlet character I've ever seen? Hard to say, as I haven't seen very many. And a lot of the credit here goes to how Hamlet is written - with a character so ripe with acting characterization, you'd have to be a pretty incapable actor to get it wrong. But the end result is certainly a passionate, engaging performance, from an actor that I had only yet known to be humdrum. Good to know that there're things to like about Olivier in spite of my indifference towards his acting style.


  1. Glad you liked him! I probably like him even more but I probably like Olivier more than you in general.

  2. Once again, I admire this performance more than I embrace it. He's intense and invested, but I always feel that Olivier intellectualizes his performances, leaving him a step away from inhabiting them. Still, if he was ever going to receive an Oscar (and Olivier not receiving an Oscar is unthinkable) I suppose this is acceptable (I like him more in "Richard III" but that's another story). No one invests Shakespearian lines like Olivier .... NO ONE. This is the quintessential example of that, and in that respect this performance succeeds on its own terms,