Olivier won the Academy Award for Best Picture and directed himself to the Best Actor award too. That is still a unique circumstance. Despite this acclaim purists condemned the excisions that Olivier made to the plot eliminating the sub-plots involving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Fortinbras. This shaved an hour and half from its length and concentrates the play into a personality study.
Despite Olivier’s modifications it remains a very formal telling of the tale from the aspect of the acting. Olivier spent a number of years in London’s Old Vic Theatre Company performing Shakespeare’s plays with the greatest living British actors of his generation. Comparing his portrayal with an American version such as Mel Gibson’s excellent 1990 version defines the two schools of acting. The American method acting version requires the actor to submerge himself into the personality he “discovers” for the character. He feels the part. The British actor learns the techniques needed to portray the character and emotions he desires to project to the audience. Olivier himself once described a circumstance that highlighted this difference. During the making of the film Marathon Man his co-star Dustin Hoffman tortured himself with various discomforts to help him feel the part of a man exhausted and at the end of his strength. When Hoffman noticed that Olivier was sitting comfortably in anticipation of his scenes Hoffman asked him how he could get into his part without some physical method. Olivier was said to have answered, “Dear boy, it’s called acting.”
So, all that said. I consider this the best version I’ve seen. The dialog, the acting, the staging, all excel the other two versions I’ve seen. The story flows and the characters live in front of us in a way that often escapes other performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Every little phrase and movement works the way it should. Olivier is a craftsman walking us through his weird world of pain and revenge. The lines are alive and sound like dialog and not museum exhibits. They fit perfectly with the action that attends them. They are poetry and human speech both.
And I actually have no complaints with any of the actors. All were skilled and none fell short that I can remember. That is not a small thing.
And despite the formal theater there are naturalistic touches that work well. My favorite is the gravedigger. When Hamlet comes upon him he fits completely with what you would expect of a son of the soil. He is contrary and defers not at all to the high-born questioning of his Lord and better. He is witty and authoritative in his knowledge of graveyard ecology. Another technical advantage of this version is the dagger and rapier duel in the final scene. Olivier and Terence Morgan who plays Laertes do an impressive job of simulating a sword fight. No special effects either.
My advice to anyone coming to Hamlet for the first time, watch this version first. Measure the other ones by it. It will actually make the others easier to understand and thereby improve them. Olivier is truly a master at his work.