Friday, February 21, 2014

Film Review: That Hamilton Woman

"That Hamilton Woman" *** (out of ****)

"That Hamilton Woman" (1941) is an Oscar nominated love story starring the real life married couple Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, directed by the Hungarian producer/director Alexander Korda.

"That Hamilton Woman" falls into the two themes my reviews this month have focused on; love stories (in honor of Valentine's Day) and past Oscar nominated and winning films. The movie scored a total of four Academy Award nominations including best cinematography and art direction and won one award for best sound.

There are those who defend the movie feverishly calling it a masterpiece and one of the screen's great romances. I don't quite agree although I do think it is a fine film. A movie I would recommend people see.

The movie is based on a novel by E. Barrington, who goes uncredited here, and was filmed once before in the silent film "The Divine Lady" (1929) which also won an Academy Award and was nominated for a total of three.

I do not think "The Divine Lady" is a masterpiece either. It is a somber, heavy-handed romance. Still, there are elements of that movie which I do enjoy. And, there are elements of "That Hamilton Woman" that I enjoy. What would have made "That Hamilton Woman" a better movie would be if it took what "The Divine Lady" did well and combined it with what this movie does well. Then I think you would have a masterpiece.

In "The Divine Lady" they do a better job establishing who our heroine is, Emma (Leigh). In that movie we see her work as a servant for a man she would eventually fall in love with. He would turn her into "a lady". But, he did not share in Emma's love and so, in an effort to ensure an inheritance from a rich uncle "offers" Emma to him, promising Emma he will return to her.

These moments in "The Divine Lady" are told with much humor and lively performances, taking up about half of the picture. In "That Hamilton Woman" they completely skip all of this and throw us right into Emma traveling to Italy to live with the rich uncle, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), who is an English Ambassador. Emma is under the impression she will only be living there for the summer but Sir Hamilton informs her otherwise and reveals the truth to her. Initially hurt and heartbroken Emma turns the situation into her advantage and marries Sir Hamilton and has what the audience presumes is a loveless marriage, though there is a mutual kindness and consideration for each other.

Living with Sir Hamilton Emma leads a life she could have only dreamed of, a life full of luxury. Of course love is missing. Enters Lord Horatio Nelson (Olivier) a navy captain, who catches Emma's eye. They engage in a love affair, even though both are married. In "The Divine Lady" this is slowly revealed to us as a dramatic surprise in "That Hamilton Woman" it is casually mentioned without much surprise. A bad decision on the filmmaker's part.

"That Hamilton Woman" is definitely a nice film to look at. It is visually more impressive than "The Divine Lady". That acting is better. The production design and a costumes are better. The musical score is better. Technically it is an achievement. But, emotionally I wasn't drawn in completely. It doesn't feel like a great romance to me. It doesn't seem to make a strong enough comment on the morals of the day and how this love affair was treated by society. I didn't feel I was watching a tragic love story of how society keeps these lovers apart. I didn't feel it was a movie which showed two lovers challenging social conventions of the day either.

Vivien Leigh played the poor woman in a great romance prior to this movie, "Waterloo Bridge" (1940) and the carefree nature of her character reminded me of perhaps her most famous role in "Gone with the Wind" (1939). Leigh was a nice choice for the character. She was a screen beauty, so it is easy to see why men would fall under her spell, and was a great talent. She had a natural screen presence. You simply look at her when she is on-screen. She commands your attention.

Laurence Olivier on the other hand I have always regarded as the greatest actor of all time. Watch him in the charming British comedy (produced by Alexander Korda) "The Divorce of Lady X" (1938) or the Jane Austen adaptation "Pride & Prejudice" (1940) or his turn as actor/director in the Academy Awarding winning "Hamlet" (1948). Not to mention one of the great screen romances "Wuthering Heights" (1939). He had an ability to blend into any role he played. You accept him as every character he played, no matter how diverse the roles. What better compliment can I give an actor?

And now a word about the director, Alexander (though sometimes credited as Sandor, which is how you say Alexander in Hungarian) Korda. Born in 1893 in the town of Pusztaturpaszto, Hungary, he is often recognized as the "father of British cinema". He started off as a journalist, writing what is recorded as the first film review in Hungary in 1914 for the magazine "Pesti Mozi". He would later go from journalist to screen writer, directing several films in Hungary starting in 1914.

He would travel to America and make some movies, "The Stolen Bride" (1927) and "The Squall" (1929) among them, though he made his greatest impact in Britain where he directed "The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and "An Ideal Husband" (1947).

"That Hamilton Woman" is a well made, finely acted film that doesn't quite feel like an epic love story to me though is still entertaining.