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A superior entertainment in every regard, Alexander Korda's That Hamilton Woman is sometimes dismissed as a propaganda picture made in Hollywood by refugees from the London Blitz. It does indulge some pro- English speechmaking, as when an ambassador calmly states that England is the proper landlord of a vast empire of grateful colonies. The British Lion must continually oppose unenlightened troublemakers seeking to disrupt this harmonious arrangement.
But that message accounts for only two or three minutes of an engrossing historical romance that successfully defies a basic tenet of the Hollywood Production Code. Emma Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson of the Admiralty lived together openly, even though each was married to another. While Nelson cemented England's naval reputation on the high seas, Emma provided an object lesson for husband-stealers: don't expect the final act to be as blissful as the romance. As historical fact decrees a sad end for the adulterous lovers, the censors were satisfied.
Newly married acting couple Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier became American movie stars separately in Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights and Rebecca. It's a shame that their powerful screen chemistry in That Hamilton Woman isn't remembered as a highlight of screen romance. Leigh's "gentleman's entertainer" turned ambassador's wife has Scarlett O'Hara's kittenish appeal but a much more mature personality. Emma becomes Nelson's lover with her eyes open and remains unselfishly devoted to him. Now known as a distant figure set literally on a pedestal in Trafalgar Square, Lord Horatio Nelson comes to life as a determined commander engaged in one of the most famous love affairs of his era. Nelson's aura as the savior of the Empire entreats official England to overlook his scandalous personal life, a moral exemption that embitters his neglected wife back home.
In the late 1700s an embattled Lord Nelson (Olivier) opposes Napoleon on the Mediterranean but has difficulties dealing with local kingdoms allied with England. In Italy, Nelson finds that Ambassador Hamilton (Alan Mowbray) is less efficient at securing provisions from the Neapolitan king than is the ambassador's young wife Emma (Leigh). Worldly in all matters except international politics, Emma is surprised when Nelson turns down her offer of a carefree celebratory party. The admiral disappears for five more years of war, and when Emma sees him again he's missing an arm and an eye. A later recuperative stay cements their illicit relationship. The ambassador disapproves but doesn't interfere. Nelson simply doesn't care that he's destroying relations with his wife (Gladys Cooper), whom he hasn't seen in seven years. Although many see Lady Emma as an opportunist, she never takes advantage of her relationship with Nelson or asks him to provide for her.
Leigh and Olivier make the most of the opportunity to play patriotic screen lovers, in a historical romance that offers national pride and personal tragedy in equal amounts. It's Vivien Leigh's picture, as we experience the story events through her eyes. Emma Hamilton has clearly slept around and seen a lot, but she's stunned by her second encounter with Lord Nelson. Instead of the handsome young rake she met only five years before, Horatio is drawn and hardened, with a dead eye and an empty sleeve where his right arm should be. Leigh's expression is one of shock, wonder and immediate infatuation, all at once. Laurence Olivier gives the impression of a spent man reinvigorated by affection; in Emma's company he forgets all marital responsibility. Olivier reportedly worked quite a bit on his makeup, giving himself a more noble nose. At this remove from 1940s film styles, we're more likely to notice that Sir Laurence is wearing as much if not more lipstick than is Ms. Leigh.
The exquisite That Hamilton Woman was reportedly filmed in great haste for reasons both budgetary and political. Alexander Korda needed an economical hit after the Technicolor expense of The Thief of Bagdad and The Jungle Book. Some sources report that That Hamilton Woman was produced at the personal request of Winston Churchill, as a morale booster. Although Vincent Korda's impressive sets and Lawrence Butler's spectacular naval battle special effects rival Hollywood's superproductions the film is at heart an intimate love story.
The screenplay by Walter Reisch and R.C. Sheriff sidesteps most of the pitfalls of epic historical romances. Nelson's many naval engagements remain off-screen; the one big battle is saved for the climax. The script scrupulously avoids standard farewell scenes; Nelson even deceives Emma to avoid one tearful goodbye. When the pair exchanges sweet nothings on Italian verandas their dialogue is extremely good, simultaneously natural and poetic. If one is looking for lovers for the ages, Emma and Horatio will do nicely.
The passage of time is cleverly communicated without montage tricks or complicated flashbacks. The film is framed with a flashback from a prison cell that tells us that Lady Hamilton's tale is not going to have a happy finish. When the time comes to bring the tragedy full circle, the story finds a swift but elegant exit.
Famed producer Korda is often overlooked as a directing talent despite the over sixty films that he signed; as in his earlier four historical biographies Korda's work is unusually sensitive to the talents of demanding stars. That Hamilton Woman is Leigh and Olivier's second and last film together, and although Korda would executive produce several more classics, he'd personally direct only two more features.
Alan Mowbray is engaging as the art-loving ambassador who sees his bride as another adornment for his Neapolitan villa. When Emma exclaims that he only needs her as decoration, we don't know if their marriage is truly sexless, or if she's rationalizing her infidelity. Sara Allgood is Emma's mother, who accepts her elevated life without ever making a social leap to high society. At least That Hamilton Woman doesn't take a hypocritical stance about class differences for propaganda purposes. Among the other supporting players, Henry Wilcoxon is stalwart as Nelson's chief aide. Gladys Cooper excels in the thankless role of Nelson's abandoned wife Frances. The angry, frustrated woman states her justifiable outrage and is then hustled off screen.
Criterion's DVD of That Hamilton Woman has a few scenes with density fluctuation but in all respects is a quantum improvement over old Television prints with poor contrast and muffled audio -- the movie won a 1942 Oscar for sound recording. We can appreciate Rudolph Maté's cinematography and Vincent Korda's designs, such as the windows that give Emma a perfect view of a rumbling Vesuvius. Miklos Rozsa's attractive score is now more easily appreciated.
Ian Christie's audio commentary covers all aspects of That Hamilton Woman in detail -- production, politics and careers. In counterpoint to Christie's essay is a lengthy but fascinating interview piece with Michael Korda, nephew of Alexander. As a young boy Michael played among the big ship miniatures for the battle scenes. He describes how the Korda family adjusted to life in Hollywood (no business talk at home), going into particulars about the filming of several movies and his producer Uncle's relationships with Churchill and the English film industry. He even describes Alexander Korda's service to British Intelligence in then-neutral Hollywood, forwarding information on Americans as well as Germans. A great raconteur, Mr. Korda imparts insights unavailable anywhere else.
Molly Haskell's essay is the centerpiece of Criterion's insert booklet; she emphasizes the fact that, like the historical characters, stars Leigh and Olivier were married to others when they became lovers. The disc also offers an original English trailer (for Lady Hamilton) in middling condition and a 1941 radio program promoting the film, Alexander Korda Presents.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
That Hamilton Woman rates:
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