Judge Brett Cullum looks at the most exciting team of screen lovers...from seven decades ago.
The Streetgirl: And then?
It must have been quite a catch by the studio to get then-newlyweds Vivien Leigh (Gone With the Wind) and her husband Laurence Olivier (Rebecca) to appear in a big budget costume drama together in 1941. It's probably like getting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to team up again on the big screen if we're looking at modern couples. That Hamilton Woman is a glitzy biography of two British legends starring two screen icons. It's an enjoyable mix of legendary lore with the luminous, a World War II valentine for England that showed off the glamour only films could provide.
Facts of the Case
Vivien Leigh takes on the role of Lady Emma Hamilton, and unfurls the tragic tale of her star-crossed love affair in flashback as she sits in a jail cell in Calais. One can't help but compare the character to Scarlett O'Hara, but the actress is a touch more reserved this time out playing closer to the emotional truth. She is a comfortable upper crust lady who falls for a married man named Captain Horatio Nelson, a famed British naval captain engaged in the war against Napoleon. Their love is forbidden as it is a scandalous affair—both parties have spouses at home—but the lovers just can't help it. She continually helps Nelson get more recruits, and stands by his side despite his growing war injuries. The battles may ravage them, but they can't bear to leave each other.
Legend holds that this was Winston Churchill's favorite film, a production he claimed to have seen 83 times. Other sources speculate the number was well into the hundreds. The claims makes sense, considering the main allegory running through the story was to turn Napoleon into a historical Hitler to engage audiences, a cause Churchill would certainly support with enthusiasm. That Hamilton Woman was made with the idea in mind to please the Prime Minister and inspire support for the war effort by showcasing the brave, stiff upper lip of Captain Nelson. The problem is that this battle torn romance plays out like a call to arms rather than a romantic tragedy, and in the end that's why you may not be as familiar with That Hamilton Woman as other classic films of the era.
Thankfully the stars and the design save the film through their verve and beauty. That Hamilton Woman works because it is absolutely gorgeous, well acted, and offers the irresistible chance to see Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier play these roles. It is a glamorous film biography of two real historical figures, even if it has its grounded share of "Do it for England!" propaganda. You can't deny the beautiful costumes, looming sets, and very real chemistry of a true couple. You see this all come together again and again as great emotional moments are played out behind a background of naval battles and upper crust finery.
Criterion goes all out with this one, giving it their usual royal treatment any great film deserves. The transfer is luminous enough to marvel at the moody black and white vistas combined with the soft focus close ups of Mrs. Leigh and her husband. Now don't expect pristine digital perfection, because there are plenty of scratches and grain to be found. The sound is simply a cleaned up bombastic use of mono, yet it comes off distortion free and more than competent. The film won an Oscar for sound design, and it is well orchestrated in many sequences. It was also recognized by nominations for special effects, cinematography, and art direction. It looks and sounds exquisite for the time it was shot. The transfer recreates what it must have been like to screen the film back in the day when it was just released.
The presentation also excels is in the extras department, providing several much-needed angles to appreciate the movie from. Film historian Ian Christie delivers an audio commentary which provides insight into how the actual people differed from their portrayal on the screen. It can run to the dry side of things, but it contains a plethora of facts for history buffs who wish to know more about the real figures in contrast with these idealized interpretations. There is a much livelier video session with retired book editor Michael Korda, son of production designer Vincent and nephew of director-producer Alexander. He provides family gossip about what it was like to work with the newlyweds on the set, and explains the intentions of the filmmakers. The booklet contains a well-written essay by Molly Haskell which addresses the star couple and the surprisingly jingoistic attitude of the film towards Britain. We also get a vintage radio special about the production from 1941 which offers you studio approved "making of" material from 68 years ago. There is a vintage U.K. trailer which shows the film's alternate title Lady Hamilton. All in all, viewers are given great depth of knowledge to appreciate the film, and Criterion proves their commitment to creating an excellent resource for fans and scholars.
That Hamilton Woman is one of three films that found real life partners Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier pairing up as romantic leads. The film feels a bit heavy on the war cause, but it's a handsome production that excels in every design aspect. Vivien Leigh, glowing lights, huge costumes, and the gravitas of Olivier all combine to make it irresistible. It's a reminder that back in the '40s films were events with large sets, well crafted costumes, and careful cinematography. Leigh and Olivier have a real chemistry that makes the history heavy plot work better than it should. There are moments when the film revels in the pure art of cinema such as when Emma boards a ship to find Nelson disfigured in swinging shadows, or the campy deathbed seen of the Captain which recreates a famous painting. That Hamilton Woman may have originally been intended as a call to arms, but it remains a testament to the power of old-school film glamour.
Guilty of being a gorgeous look at a war torn affair between two married people, That Hamilton Woman is a fine addition to the Criterion Collection.
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