That Hamilton Woman
Directed by Alexander Korda
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 125 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: September 8, 2009
Review Date: August 24, 2009
After having made a series of biographical epics about such personages as Henry VIII, Catherine the Great, and Rembrandt, Alexander Korda, at the behest of his great good friend Winston Churchill, decided on a propaganda piece filmed in Hollywood using many actors from the British colony ensconced in California and starring one of the most heralded movie couples of the period: Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Filmed hurriedly and on the cheap, the resultant film That Hamilton Woman is a triumph of smoke and mirrors with historical biography masquerading as a war cry for the aid of Britain then in dire straits in the beginning years of the Second World War. Seen almost seventy years after the fact, the film is an engrossing melodrama on its own with marvelous performances and a production design that one would swear equals the most expensive Hollywood productions currently being financed.
Arrested near the end of her life for shoplifting and debt, the former Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) recalls the spirited years she spent as the wife of the English ambassador (Alan Mobray) in Naples and her many kindnesses toward Captain Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier), then in the midst of a series of naval battles with Napoleon’s navy which led to his promotion to Lord Admiral Nelson. Their scandalous love affair carried on while each was married to others rather charms the British rather than scandalizes them, and it’s only after Lord Nelson dies at Trafalgar that Emma’s fortunes decline.
Make no mistake about it, with every camera angle, every dialogue scene, and every stitch of the costume designer’s needle, Vivien Leigh is the star of this picture, a veritable showcase for the actress who had soared to international stardom as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Though Laurence Olivier was a far more celebrated actor at the time, Leigh claims first billing, and she’s deferred to in all of their scenes together. And her scintillating performance justifies such ardor from her director. It’s an accomplished performance: girlish, effervescent, innocent in the early going and maturing throughout into a sober, civilized woman of the world as the picture unfolds right down to the guttersnipe we see in the film’s introduction and coda. Korda’s brother Vincent has fashioned such a brilliant production in support of Leigh’s star power that though the film was made inexpensively, it doesn’t look it at all with the Naples embassy a grand, glorious palace, and other residences equally showy and impressive. The costumes as well dazzle, and Alexander Korda keeps the camera moving to show them off from a variety of angles. If the script by Walter Reisch and R. C. Sheriff must fudge the facts of the Nelson-Hamilton liaison, it’s pretty much expected for the Hollywood of that period, and yet the film is actually more explicit than one might expect in matters sexual. The climactic sea battle was showy enough in its day, but its studio tank origins now are impossible to miss.
Faced with the vivacity of Leigh’s Lady Hamilton, Olivier’s Nelson is initially reserved but more outwardly showy and demonstrative as the picture progresses. Nelson was allegedly an egotist of the first order, and Olivier gives a nod in that general direction when he chooses to wear his shiny medals into battle thus risking instant identification by the enemy. Alan Mobray gives a solid if stolid rendition as Sir William Hamilton, and Gladys Cooper does her cold, stiff bit as Nelson’s jilted wife Frances. Sara Allgood has lots of fun with Emma’s gregarious mother while the film’s most surprising performance comes from the usually inexpressive Henry Wilcoxin. Here he’s excellent as Nelson’s loyal and loving aide Captain Hardy.
The film has been framed at 1.33:1 and is slightly windowboxed in Criterion’s usual style. Though the grayscale is quite pleasing and sharpness is very good, the image must endure a fairly steady stream of white and (a few) black scratches. There is also a random hair seen briefly and a small amount of debris. Black levels, however, are good and give a noticeably dimensional look to those intricate sets. The film has been divided into 17 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track is bogged down by light to moderate hiss throughout the film. Dialogue is clear, but occasionally the Miklos Rozsa score gets distorted in the upper reaches of the music sounding shrill on occasion. There is also occasional light crackle than can be discerned.
The audio commentary by Ian Christie is a marvelous compendium of biographical fact about the people being portrayed in the movie and the historical aspects of the filming of the picture in Hollywood. For fans of the movie, it’s a must listen.
“Alexander Korda Presents” is a 14 ½-minute radio promotion for the movie featuring soundtrack excerpts and interviews with the stars from the set of the film. The interviews and narration are by Bob Harris.
A 34 ¾-minute interview with Michael Korda, nephew of the producer-director and son of the film’s production designer, is a fascinating anamorphic widescreen piece with the very erudite Korda giving opinions about the film, recounting gossip about the stars, and talking about his relatives and their careers in the movie business.
A vintage trailer for the movie, titled Lady Hamilton, runs for 2 minutes in 4:3.
The enclosed 18-page booklet contains a cast and crew list, some marvelous stills from the movie, and an analysis of the film and its stars by critic Molly Haskell.
3.5/5 (not an average)
A great showcase for Vivien Leigh and a decent recounting of one of history’s most notorious affairs, That Hamilton Woman still plays well more than half a century after its production. Though not boasting the greatest quality or the most mammoth set of bonus features in the Criterion Collection, it’s nevertheless a pleasure to see the film again with two of the cinema’s most glittering and celebrated stars at the zenith of their popularity.