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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Olivier's Shakespeare: The Criterion Collection
Olivier's Shakespeare: The Criterion Collection
The Criterion Collection // Unrated // August 1, 2006
List Price: $79.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 31, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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The Product:
In what is nothing more than a repackaging of Criterion's previous releases of Laurence Olivier's Shakespeare films – 1944's Henry V, 1948's Hamlet, and 1955's Richard III – we have a trilogy of terrific motion picture dramas. One is a heroic history piece poised as a nation-saving attempt at morale boosting propaganda. Another is a film noir-like look at one man's descent into murderous madness. Finally, we have political intrigue and backstabbing at its most delicious…and lethal. For those unfamiliar with these Golden Age versions, preferring instead Kenneth Branagh's take on Henry, Ian McKellan's view of Richard, and the various incarnations of the famous depressed Dane, what is presented here is nothing short of breathtaking. Sure, Olivier believed in the basics of Shakespeare's words, but he also understood how to mold their meaning to a contemporary audience. What we have here are the first attempts at modernizing the man. And thanks to Olivier, the transformation is terrific.

The Plot:
The three titles offered here represent Laurence Olivier's only cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's work. These are the exact same DVD releases that Criterion offers individually. None of the technical specs have changed, and the versions of each film remain the same. From a narrative standpoint, here are the basic storylines covered by each film:

Henry V:
Hoping to avoid a confrontation with the monarchy, the Archbishop of Canterbury convinces King Henry V to pursue the throne of France. Believing there is a claim to such a legacy, his Highness Henry contacts the country's ruling Dauphin. Insulted by his response, Henry determines war to be the only answer. Gathering together his troops and sailing across the Channel, Henry prepares for battle. He rallies his men, and even disguises himself as a fellow soldier to commiserate with the conscripted commoners. The French are convinced that they can defeat this hotheaded upstart and act arrogantly on the eve of conflict. Though massively outnumbered, Henry wins the day. As a settlement for peace between the nations, he asks for Princess Katherine of France's hand in marriage. With their marriage comes a truce between the two nations.

All is not well in the Court of Denmark. The King has been murdered by his brother Claudius, and the knave has now married the widowed Queen Gertrude , making him the ruler of all the land. None of this sits well with the Prince, Hamlet. After being visited by an apparition of his late father, the grieving young man plots revenge. Naturally, Claudius is aware of his nephews' feelings, and decides to have him killed. The plan fails, pushing Hamlet deeper into depression. Even his girlfriend, the fair Ophelia cannot reach him. In a peak of rage, Hamlet kills Ophelia's father, Polonius. This sends the young lady over the edge and she commits suicide. Eager for a confession from his Uncle, Hamlet stages a play reenacting the death of his father. The fallout leads to a violent standoff in the court. Gertrude is poisoned, Hamlet is mortally wounded by Polonius's son, Laertes. Before he dies, Hamlet get his revenge by killing Claudius.

Richard III:
It is just after the Wars of the Roses. King Edward IV is seated on the throne of England. The bitter civil war between the Yorks and the Lancasters is finally over. Unhappy that he does not wear the crown, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, conspires to overthrow his brother's regime from the inside out. With the help of close ally Lord Buckingham, Richard kills all heirs to the throne and is crowned King. But Richard is a very unpopular monarch. The Earl of Richmond, a descendant of the defeated Lancasters, invades England and challenges Richard's authority. Richard tries to consolidate his control by killing his wife, Anne, and marrying Elizabeth (his cousin). Events forestall the union, and Richard is forced to meet Richmond on the battlefield. He is killed by Richmond, and, again, a Lancaster holds the throne of England.

The DVD:
Shakespeare can be a tough sell, even for those open to a more classical approach to plotting. The Bard, as he is called, can confuse a simple sentiment like "I Love You" drawing out the feeling with language so flowery that people with allergies instantly get the sniffles. Many look at his plays and pray for the day when they are not part of the high school syllabus/university or college curriculum. Therefore, the thought of revisiting them for pure ENTERTAINMENT purposes seems insane. Struggling through the arcane old English, the several simmering layers of subtext and the multiple plot permutations is just not part of our new world diversion DNA. No one understood this better that Laurence Olivier. Along with his contemporary counterpart Kenneth Branagh, the seasoned thespian knew that in order to get people to cozy up to Shakespeare, you had to find a commercial hook to hang him on. That's why the man often called the world's greatest actor used cinema, and its various visual tricks, to soften up the stodginess. For his efforts, his three films Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III received 12 Oscar Nominations (eventually winning four).

Even with various versions out on the market – including those by the aforementioned Mr. Branagh, Mel Gibson, and even Iam McKellan – Olivier's efforts are considered classic. With their major reworking of the Bard's narrative ideals, many see them as true examples of Shakespeare successfully translated to the medium of film. As such, looking at each movie separately, we can see why many consider these cinematic translations to be definitive. Let's begin with:

Henry V (1944)
Conceived, originally, as a propaganda piece for a war-torn Britain, Olivier's first crack at bringing the Bard to the big screen was fraught with problems. As part of Shakespeare's eight play history of the English monarchy, Henry V needed the two-part Henry IV storylines to support its many implications. Even worse, during this time of international tensions, the titular king was more Napoleonic (or worse, Hitler-like) than a calm, considered patriot. All throughout the text were references to rape, pillage, war and death, aggressive battle stances that seemed sadly out of place in a bombed out Britannia. The solution to so many narrative obstacles seemed simple at first – drop all the posturing and turn Henry into a flag-waving loyalist, a measured man of the people fighting for what he thought was right and fare. Then, turn the enemy – in this case, the French – into a farcical combination of distaff foppishness and outright arrogance. View Henry as a savior, not as a conqueror, and twist the battles into jingoistic statements of sovereignty and courage. And above all, find a way to make the mannered old English dialogue, with its random rhyming and odd turns of phrase, into sentiments that come alive to audiences used to Technicolor melodramas and razzle-dazzle musicals.

Amazingly, first time director Olivier met the massive challenge, spinning Henry V into a rousing, ripped from the Elizabethan era masterwork of smoke and mirrors. Utilizing the hyper-saturated color scheme of the noted three strip process and using old manuscripts and paintings for his production design, our star, along with cinematographers Jack Hildyard and Robert Krasker, and set designers/ art directors Paul Sheriff and Carmen Dillon turned the UK of 'olde' into a meticulously crafted fairy tale. As the camera passes over a Lilliputian version of London, meticulously rendered in miniature, we stop by The Globe to see this version of the play commencing. Starting with such a setup – we actually witness the first half hour of the story in this intimate theatrical setting, Olivier properly prepares us for the divergent visual canvases to follow. Once the staging has 'opened up" to a more real world backdrop, we are still greeted by decorated horizons and cartoon like castles. When the parapets of Disney World look more authentic than what's offered here, you realize what Olivier is attempting. He wants to make his version of history less stogy and stagy, allowing fantasy and dreams to define his ideas.

Certainly, the acting will be problematic for those more accustomed to the post-modern attempts at adapting the Bard. Instead of measured Method-ology, used to bring realism to the roundabout lines, Olivier is all Old Vic. Everyone is on clipped pins and natty needles as they render Shakespeare's words like daunting diction exercises. Certainly, our lead uses his incredible good looks and inviting eyes to sell some of the emotion, but for the most part, this is the very affected performance style that turns people off of these plays in the first place. Thankfully, the abundance of engaging eye candy, as well as the fine directorial flourishes here and there, spice up what is an otherwise typical trip into old English literature. Still, because of the various innovations Olivier employed, because of the celebratory tone and overall sensation of well meaning might making right, one can't help but fall into the spirit of the king's thing. There will always be those who prefer Kenneth Branagh's blood and guts version of the play, a mud and sweat spectacle where war was kept the garish glorification of violence it truly is. For his part, Olivier's more pastoral propaganda is inviting, and awfully satisfying.

Hamlet (1948)
If Henry V is a celebration of Hollywood's hopefulness as forged during the depression, Hamlet is the dark domain of film noir that dominated the industry in the post-War world of cinema. Brooding, bleak and overloaded with atmosphere, the vast array of movies included inside the mighty monochrome genre defined the criminality of cool better than a hundred dime store novels. In fact, some could even call this version of Shakespeare's celebrated "masterpiece" a pulp version of the melancholy Dane. Gone are several recognizable subtexts (almost all the politics, the always welcome characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) along with most of Hamlet's "madness". In its place are glamour shot close-ups, brooding internal monologues, a healthy does of Oedipus and his mother-loving conceits, and an overwhelming cinematic mise-en-scene. Olivier obviously believes that this play's regal reputation lies directly with the lead character and his interactions with the rest of the cast - all other unimportant elements and subplots be damned. As a result, his Hamlet is more personal – and problematic. The perplexed prince is definitely a disturbed young man caught up in his own meandering thoughts, but in Olivier's hands, he occasionally looks like a supermodel who didn't get the call when Fashion Week hit Manhattan.

Some of his changes are equally irritating. No matter how wordy or obtuse, Hamlet's soliloquies are the backbone of this play. We come to a performance of this overlong melodrama simply to witness an actor wrestle with their seismic shifts in sentiment, eloquent (and exasperating) word play, and frequently unfinished emotions. How well one handles these iambic pentameter rants has often been cited as the true test of a thespian's mantle. Here, Olivier misjudges their importance, rendering them as voice-over whispers over well-lit compositions. The effect is off-putting, since we want to see these performers speak these words. Otherwise, there is really no reason to hear them. Certainly, this renders Olivier's Hamlet highly cinematic, since no stage production could get away with allowing its lead to stand around while "To be or not to be" plays over the loudspeakers. But that doesn't mean it's more effective. In fact it feels different for difference's sake. In addition, a few of the supporting performances are underdeveloped. The usually compelling Jean Simmons can't seem to find the fragility in her overly sensitize Ophelia. While her death by drowning is dazzling, her efforts at enlivening her character don't work. Much better are Eileen Herlie (known to many Americans for her role on All My Children) as Queen Ophelia, Felix Alymer as Polonious, and a very young Peter Cushing as Osric. In fact, the company Olivier surrounds himself with really makes the most of what many consider to be Shakespeare most solid, fully realized work.

Richard III (1955)
Over the years, several filmmakers have tried to overcome the 'curse of Shakespeare' by recasting Richard III in modern times. Sir Ian McKellen starred in a 1995 version in which Britain was turned into a fascist dictatorship and Richard a Hitler-like goon. Stage versions have taken the tired, esoteric speech patterns and forged them into a more conversational tone, hoping that audiences would more easily accept and understand the passions and politics at play. Even Al Pacino made the marvelous documentary Looking for Richard that discussed the difficulty in deciphering the royal rascal's intentions. Yet such altering begs the question of authenticity. While this is not a sound historical interpretation of Richard's reign, time and setting are as important to Richard III as Shakespeare's poetic mastery of the language. And without a doubt, the most magical and magnificent version of this theatrical treat retains all the original period costume flavor and pompous pronouncements while also never once letting the audience forget how contemporary the sensibilities within actually are. A masterpiece of style, story, acting, and atmosphere, Sir Laurence Olivier's 1955 Richard III is, perhaps, his best adaptation ever and a thoroughly modern tale of Machiavellian malfeasance.

Olivier's handling of this difficult, complex narrative is indeed spectacular. He manages to find both a visual style and an acting mannerism that perfectly underline his themes and tone. Everything here is enhanced by several of the celebrated choices he makes. It is easy to liken his vision of Richard III to that of a fairytale, albeit a rather course and brutish one. When one recalls the levels of violence and darkness infused inside a Hans Christian Anderson or Brothers Grimm fable, the connection becomes all the stronger. Olivier utilizes Technicolor sets of glorious primary magic to infuse the events with an otherworldly, fictional force. But he is not afraid to throw on the darkness. Shadows run rampant in this film, flowing over sets and scenes, casting their opaque, onerous quality onto one and all. Indeed, Olivier lets the camera linger as the gloom grows and morphs, blanketing objects and people like the angel of death. It is one of the strongest and most successful devices in Olivier's directorial bag of tricks. Windows are also a terrific thematic mechanism in Richard III. Scenes are witnessed through them, they frame events and, occasionally, said openings are closed so that true, malevolent evil can be practiced behind them. We witness George's final hours through a jailhouse opening. The King's delusional orders, based on bewitched visions and dreams, are overheard as Richard passes by a series of shuttered panels. We, too, are meant to be actively involved in this story as well as hear it unfold from the position of interloper and eavesdropper.

There is also a deft handling by Olivier of the multiple means of manipulation Richard employs. Olivier views each methodology in a different, deceptive light. When the supernatural is involved, he keeps the tone completely in fairy story mood. The colors are blinding and bright. When Richard seduces Anne, the light is softened to suggest romance and suave charm. False promises and underhanded commitments have a shroud of secrecy and a souring of gray. When Richard makes libelous statements against fellow noblemen, Olivier casts the scenes in the practical light of day, on the fully lit court, or with the sun as a backdrop, obviously to symbolize that Richard's accusations couldn't stand in the light. Indeed, it is only when the rogue is required to use his power and age, his true individual attributes, that the framing becomes funny. Olivier loves to place Richard either dead center or slightly off center, inferring that Richard is indeed a part of everything that goes on. He also lets him wander in from above and below, reinforcing the otherworldly power he has. But then there are times when the camera tracks up, like the eye of God. It looks down on the kingdom and illustrates the notion of a higher power watching over, counting the vices and keeping metaphysical tabs on the participants. Richard is shaking the very foundations of fate when he tempts it and alters it so. Olivier lets you understand this visually, so that if the words fail you, the images will not.

The Video:
Again, there is nothing new from the technical side of these DVD releases. All are presented in near pristine 1.33:1 full screen transfers. Of the two Technicolor features, Richard III looks best. Henry V has some initial pigment issues, with a few scenes washed out or slightly out of tint. During these brief gaffs, the image will go mostly blue, or slightly red. It's obviously an issue with the stock elements. It has nothing to do with how Criterion handles the presentation. As to Hamlet's beautiful black and white visuals, there is some minimal scratching and negative damage. The print can also look soft, lacking the crisp contrasts we expect from such a design. For the most part though, the monochrome looks amazing.

The Audio:
As for the sonic side of things, there is not much that can be done with bland, basic Dolby Digital Mono. The all important dialogue is easily discernible, and the music expertly modulated.

The Extras:
Beginning with the bare bones and moving forward, Hamlet has the least inviting packaging of the trio. With nothing more than an informative pamphlet as part of its added content, it's the DVD most in need of an immediate upgrade. Much better are the supplements supplied for Henry V. Film historian Bruce Eder offers a tantalizing, informative commentary track that discusses not only the cinematic record of the production, but the actual history involved in the story as well. From how wartime rationing hindered the filmmaking to the one element Olivier was denied in realizing his vision (hint – it was something deeply personal to him at the time), this is an excellent overview. In addition, we get a chance to view a chronology of England's rulers (mandatory in figuring Shakespeare's version of the past) and a still gallery from the artistically influential Book of Hours. It was the image plates inside this tome that provided the inspiration for much of the film's look.

But Richard III has the best overall presentation, offering a full-blown analytical commentary of the film itself and a wealth of riches on a second, supplemental disc. Looking to this second DVD for extra offerings, we are privy to a series of spectacular special events. First is a near-hour-long interview with Olivier by famous British theater critic Kenneth Tynan for a show called Great Acting. It's a wonderful walk through this gifted man's myth and mystery. Elsewhere on Disc Two is a 12-minute television trailer for the film (obviously used as both publicity and a marketing tool for potential purchasers) that gives you a dry but decent behind-the-scenes look at how the film was created. Interspersed with installments from Olivier's autobiography, the gallery of onset and production stills feels like a read-along look on the making of this magnificent movie, and the original trailer shows how easy it was to sell this film's inner majesty.

But by far the best bonus is the thorough, very detailed, and well-reasoned commentary track. A duo affair featuring director Russell Lees with occasional input from John Wilders (former governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company), this is a rich, robust, and extremely detailed discussion and dissection. Lees walks us through almost every aspect of the play and its adaptation to film. He discusses the radical changes Olivier made to the text of the original Shakespeare work, the inclusion of material from the companion pieces of "Richard III" (it was the last installment of an intended quadrilogy about the Houses of York and Lancaster that includes the three-part Henry VI), and the different interpretations the actors bring to the their roles. Wilders, on the other hand, reserves many of his comments for the formal structure of Shakespeare's drama, the use of verse, and the history of Elizabethan theater. There is a lot of scrutiny, debate over themes and visual cues and the historical accuracy of the facts and details presented. It gives one a grand appreciation of both Shakespeare's art and Olivier's craft.

Final Thoughts:
With one DVD set that definitely deserves the Collector's Series score (Richard III) and two more than warrant ratings of Highly Recommended, Olivier's Shakespeare is a must own for any film fan. Though the Bard still has difficulty crossing the boundaries of post-modern appreciation, having the opportunity to see one of the world's greatest actors (and directors, for that matter) working wonderfully within his element is enough to overcome such concerns. Who cares if the language is arcane and the set-ups overly complex? The plain fact is that, thanks to his acting, and his often unheralded directing, Olivier made these plays palpable to audiences 400 years removed from their creation – and he did it without damaging the originals' inherent integrity. Sure, there are some snips here and there, and added elements to clarify the context, but that's what great artists do – they interpret material in the manner best suited for their designs. In this case, the retrofitting worked wonderfully. It created a unconscious call to arms, an brooding look at love and loyalty and a dark, depressing portrait of the corruptibility of need for power. Together or separately, these films stand as a testament to their creator – both the mind behind the words, and the man behind the lens.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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