Can We Talk About Olivier’s Hamlet?


This is the biggie, the one that all the others are held up against. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (1948) is serious business for sure. But can we talk about it, just between you and me, for a moment? I mean, this movie is just so ARCH. It’s really kind of camp, if you give it a second look. I’m not trying to be a jerk here, because really, I’m the English Lit freak, I love super-serious films, I love ye olde fashioned Shakespeare, I love black-and-white flicks, the whole lot. But, dayum, Larry. I don’t know if your movie holds up, here in 2016.

Hamlet (1948)

Son, stop staring into my cleavage, and just look up at my ’40s rolled hair, and hood/space-crown combo.

The settings are fabulous with big, medieval-ish castle-looking stuff going on, imposing archways and faux stone, grand staircases and the like. At first, the costumes seem to say this is set in the 16th century to go with the Bard’s language. But, whoa, that’s a very 1940s version of Tudor or Elizabethan or maybe late 15th century or whatever (Oscar-winning or not). And then there’s the hair. Hamlet and Ophelia are so very, very blond. It’s a good thing they don’t hook up in the end (spoilers!) because their kids would be practically albino pale. The hats (when they’re worn) are total fantasy mashups, kinda French hoods, kinda space alien crazy. No expense was spared to just add more crap all over the place, that’s the vibe I’m getting.

Hamlet (1948)

The braids are because of Denmark, is that it?

Hamlet (1948)

Well, hello, codpieces!

Hamlet (1948)

As Tim Gunn would say: Edit.

It’s not just the costumes, though. The performance gets pretty heavy as you go in. Very THE-A-TAH. The kind of thing that works great live, and was probably awesome circa 1948, but, whoa, it feels a bit thick today.

Hamlet (1948)

Imma gonna soliloquy yr ass off any minute.

Hamlet (1948)

You’re not my real dad.

Hamlet (1948)


Hamlet (1948)

2B R NT 2B?

Hamlet (1948)

MFW Olivier starts fondling that skull.

Hamlet (1948)

You’re the only one who really gets me, dead guy.

But I could be a jaded bitch. I do really love Kenneth Branagh‘s film version of Hamlet (1996), which has a less stagey vibe even though it’s nearly twice as long. What’s up with that?

Hamlet (1948)

Drama? Melodrama?


OK, let’s do this! Let’s talk about Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet!



About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

12 Responses

  1. Susan Pola

    I also prefer the Brannagh version and the Mel Gibson too over this one. The costumes on the Olivier are a mishmash of eras. Pseudo-Elizabethan and Medieval. The acting too is a bit much. Does Olivier chew the scenery in all his scenes or am I anti-Olivier. I don’t think I am anti-Olivier just feel that what acting wise MAY have worked in the 1940s on stage and on film does not necessarily work today. The classic films like All About Eve notwithstanding.
    It seems to me that the designer didn’t pick an era and stick to it.

      • Kimberly

        Same here. I probably should appreciate him, but I’ve never understood the attraction some people have to him. He is the LEAST attractive actor to me.

  2. MoHub

    I love the version done for The Shakespeare Plays with Derek Jacobi, Patrick Stewart, Claire Bloom, Eric Porter, and Lalla Ward. Lower budget and more of a filmed stage play, but it works on all levels.

    • Shirley

      That’s my favorite one, too! I know a lot of people’s favorite is the Brannagh version, but that was a movie I loved the first time I watched it, but I didn’t think it held up well on a rewatch.

      Plus, I just like Jacobi’s line readings the best out of the 4 Hamlet versions I’ve watched.

      • MoHub

        My favorite line reading of Jacobi’s is when he almost quietly says, It HATH made me mad” instead of the usual bombastic “It hath made me MAD!” It was that one line that made that Hamlet my all-time top version.

  3. Lyn Robb

    I’ve never felt the love for Olivier in film. This movie especially annoys me as it is so obvious everyone else got the short end of the scenes and dialog as Olivier slashed them almost to the point of non-existence except for his part.

    I too prefer the Branagh version and as much as the Gibson interpretation has been criticized heavily, I very much enjoyed it too. Another fave is Rosencranz and Gildenstern Are Dead!

    Can’t comment much on the costumes but your captions gave me a delightful giggle!

  4. toranut97

    I fell in love with this film when I was in high school… (okay, I am OLD)… I am fairly ignorant on costuming but loved your captions. The hammy, heavy performances have wormed their way into my heart in spite of everything. Yeah, I love Branagh’s “unedited” version, but this one owns my heart. At the time I thought Olivier was actually blond (didn’t connect him with the guy in Wuthering Heights!) and I really had the feels for this. Made me love Shakespeare. Really.

    Just had to express a minority, very-non-hipster opinion!

  5. ladylavinia1932

    I’ve never felt the love for Olivier in film.

    Neither have I, if I must be brutally honest. There are a few of his roles that I truly liked. But I have never been that much of a fan of his as a screen actor. He tends to be a bit stagey at times. I read somewhere that director William Wyler literally had to teach him to hold back when acting in front of the camera. Yet, even in “Wuthering Heights”, there were still moments when he was a bit stagey. I don’t know how good Vivian Leigh was on stage, but in front of a movie camera, she was the better performer.

    As for the costumes in this movie . . . dare I say it? All over the place? I guess this film did not age very well.

  6. hsc

    The Jean Simmons version of mad Ophelia with flowers in her unkempt hair was obviously the inspiration of a character on the ’60s “Addams Family” series– Morticia’s sister Ophelia Frump:

    While she usually just had the wildly matted hair, in at least one appearance she even got the “because of Denmark” braids– taken to a level anticipating Bo Derek’s cornrows in “10”:

    IIRC, Ophelia Frump had her daisies actually growing out of her head– at one point when someone tried to pull one, her knee went up and she remarked, “That one has long roots”.

  7. Julia

    I adore the Kenneth Branagh version, it just feels right. David Tenant was in a modern version that I thought was very good as well.

  8. Jimboo

    My favorite trivia concerning this “Hamlet” is about the actress playing Hamlet’s mother. Eileen Herlie, was actually 11 years younger than Olivier playing her son. The movie did nothing for her career though inspite of all its awards. That had to wait almost 30 more years when she became a TV soap star as Myrtle Fargate in “All My Children” in the ’70’s.