Wednesday, May 26, 2010

#487: That Hamilton Woman

(Alexander Korda, 1941)

People like to talk a lot about how great 1939 was (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Jezebel, The Rules of the Game, etc.) , but 1941 was pretty fucking awesome. The Lady Eve, How Green Was My Valley, Ball of Fire, and The Maltese Falcon were all released that year, and that's not even including the 800 lb. gorilla, Citizen Kane. I'll now add That Hamilton Woman to that list. The film is that unique kind of movie only the British seem to be able to get away with, a classy, sophisticated love story/historical epic that rarely leaves its characters' living space but nevertheless seems epic and unapolgetically straight-faced.

Both Lawrence Olivier and Vivien Leigh are really excellent, but it's Leigh who is the revelation for me. Even though I'm not a big Gone with the Wind fan, I've seen the film four or five times, and it's enough to make you hate her if you hate Scarlett the way I do. So it took me a good hour into this film before I started to see her as a separate person and could begin to evaluate both her character's motivations and Leigh's own performance. In the process, I started to feel a genuine sympathy for this woman, caught up in history and her own uneasiness with society. I loved the relationship these two developed, and I believed it was more than just a dalliance, hoping they would somehow find a happy ending but nevertheless knowing that it wasn't meant to be.

Yes, this movie is propaganda (Olivier's Nelson's only weakness is his love for a woman who is not his wife) and perhaps the movie sinks into melodrama in a way that might be off-putting to the typical modern viewer. But for me, this is the kind of movie for which cinema was created.

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