That Hamilton Woman / Lady Hamilton (1941)

“Lady Hamilton is one of the very best women in the world, and an honor to her sex.”

Synopsis:
The young new wife (Vivien Leigh) of a middle-aged widower (Alan Mowbray) falls in love with Lord Nelson (Laurence Olivier), a gallant married officer fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Perhaps best known as Winston Churchill’s favorite film (he purportedly saw it over 80 times), That Hamilton Woman is, as Peary notes, a “combination of great romance… and pro-British wartime propaganda”, and arguably “features Vivien Leigh’s finest performance”. He notes that it’s “a tribute to the bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness of women”, and lauds Leigh’s Lady Hamilton — one of cinema’s “most impressive woman characters” — as “brainy, witty, flirtatious when need be, serious when she wants to be, able to handle any situation or impress any person, beautiful, optimistic, helpful, caring [and] passionate”. He calls the film “lavishly produced, maturely scripted, [and] beautifully acted and directed”, and concludes that Churchill “had good taste”.

While not all critics feel the same way, I am largely in agreement with Peary’s generous assessment here. Alexander Korda’s production is superbly mounted on all counts, from its sumptuous sets and costumes to the finely nuanced performances by all involved. Leigh and Olivier — whose real-life adulterous relationship notoriously mirrored their characters’ on-screen affair — make for an undeniably romantic star-crossed couple, one which “has few equals in romantic annals”, given that Olivier (in superbly done make-up) “is rigid but dashing” while Leigh “is radiant, alive, aware, [and] available”. Meanwhile, Alan Mowbray and Gladys Cooper are surprisingly convincing and sympathetic in what could have been merely thankless roles, playing cuckolded spouses who are helpless in the face of a love which clearly transcends marriage vows.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Vivien Leigh as Lady Hamilton (nominated by Peary as one of the best actresses of the year in his Alternate Oscars)
  • Laurence Olivier as Lord Nelson
  • Alan Mowbray as Lord Hamilton
  • Gladys Cooper as Lady Nelson
  • Rudolph Mate’s cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for Leigh’s performance, and as an overall good show.

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One Response to “That Hamilton Woman / Lady Hamilton (1941)”

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for its place in cinema history – though I’ll admit to not being wildly enthusiastic about it.

    Putting it aside as a history lesson (to a degree), the film’s main calling card does appear to be Leigh. Many film fanatics may not realize that Leigh actually made little more than a handful of high-profile films. I’m guessing that she spent a lot more time playing to live audiences. I’m also guessing that perhaps film producers weren’t always sure how to use her properly.

    If you look at the major film roles she had – i.e., this film, ‘Gone With the Wind’, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Ship of Fools’, & ‘The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone’ – they all seem to more or less make-up the complexity of one single character. One can see bits and pieces of Leigh’s other roles in her Lady Hamilton. I wouldn’t say it’s her best role (though she is good in it) – she is certainly given a larger range of levels to play in ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Streetcar’.

    I like that this is one of Olivier’s toned-down performances. I’m always grateful when he’s not chewing the scenery.

    Mowbray is especially good in his first long scene with Leigh, where he’s explaining to her exactly what her situation is now that she has arrived in Naples. It’s always fun having Sara Allgood around. As well, Gladys Cooper lends her usual dependable self to another round of ‘cold, proud woman’. (She’s so good at it!)

    I wish the film were a little *less* about the love story or, rather, had the love story as only part of a larger, more realistic vision of countries pitted against each other. But, alas, that is not the case.

    I found this online while searching for a little ‘truth behind the film’ info:

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/jan/06/reel-history-that-hamilton-woman

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