- Directors: Laurence Olivier
- Producers: Laurence Olivier
- Writers: Play, William Shakespeare, Screenplay, Laurence Olivier
- Genres: Drama
- Actors: Laurence Olivier, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Jean Simmons
The film follows the overall story of the play, but cuts nearly half the dialogue, and includes an opening voice-over that represents Hamlet’s fundamental problem as indecision.
The film begins with a narrator quoting some of Hamlet’s lines from Act I Scene IV:
The narrator then breaks from Shakespeare’s words to inform us “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”
The action begins on the battlements of Elsinore where a sentry, Francisco, (John Laurie) is relieved of his watch (and questioned if he has seen anything) by another sentry, Bernardo (Esmond Knight), who, with yet another sentry, Marcellus (Anthony Quayle), has twice previously seen the Ghost of King Hamlet. Marcellus then arrives with the skeptical Horatio (Norman Wooland), Prince Hamlet’s friend. Suddenly, all three see the Ghost, and Horatio demands that the ghost speak. The ghost vanishes then, without a word.
Inside the Great Hall of the castle, the court is celebrating the marriage of Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and King Claudius (Basil Sydney); old King Hamlet has died under mysterious circumstances and his wife, Gertrude, has, within a month of the tragedy, married the late King’s brother. Prince Hamlet (Laurence Olivier) sits alone, refusing to join in the celebration, despite the protests of the new King. When the court has left the Great Hall, Hamlet fumes over the hasty marriage, muttering to himself the words “and yet, within a month!” Soon, Horatio and the sentries enter telling Hamlet of the ghostly apparition of his father. Hamlet proceeds to investigate, and upon arriving on the battlements, sees the ghost. Noting that the ghost beckons him forward, Hamlet follows it up onto a tower, wherein it reveals its identity as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered, who did it, and how it was done. The audience then sees the murder re-enacted in a flashback as the ghost describes the deed – Claudius is seen pouring poison into the late King Hamlet’s ear, thereby killing him. Hamlet does not at first accept this as the truth, and then prepares to feign madness, so as to test Claudius’ conscience, without jumping to conclusions.
Hamlet meets Laertes’ challenge, and engages him in a duel. Hamlet wins the first two rounds, and Gertrude drinks from the cup, suspecting that it is poisoned. Whilst in-between bouts, Laertes rushes Hamlet, and strikes him on the arm, fatally poisoning him. Hamlet, not knowing this, continues to duel. Hamlet eventually disarms Laertes, and switches blades with him. Hamlet then strikes Laertes in the wrist, fatally wounding him. Gerturde then submits to the poison, and dies, warning Hamlet not to drink from the cup. Laertes, dying, confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who flies at Claudius in a fit of rage, killing him, before finally expiring himself. Horatio, horrified by all this, orders that Hamlet be given a decent funeral, and the young prince’s body is taken away, while the Danish court kneels and the cannons of Elsinore fire off a peal of ordinance in respect. (A few women can be seen weeping quietly in the background.)