Wednesday, April 17, 2013

That Hamilton Woman

Apparently, I've never bloged about That Hamilton Woman before, although I thought I had. It's airing again tonight at 8:00 PM on TCM as part of the third week of films for Laurence Olivier's time as Ster of the Month.

That Hamilton woman, as the title refers to her, is Lady Emma Hamilton, played by Vivien Leigh. However, when we first see her at the start of the film she's decidedly not a lady. Indeed, she's stealing to live, and is put into prison for it. She meets another female prisoner, which gives Hamilton the chance to tell her story in flashback, because that's such a highly original film technique. Anyhow, we flash back a couple of decades, to Naples in the 1780s. Emma is better off than she was as a prisoner, but not of a particularly wealthy family. She and her mother are going to Naples at the insistence of her lover, Charles, who is the nephew of Lord Hamilton, the British ambassador to Naples (played by Alan Mowbray). It turns out that Charles was sending her away in order to pay off some debts, and never had any intention of marrying her. So what's a woman stranded in Naples to do? Why not marry the ambassador? He needs a wife and she needs money, so it's a match made, if not in heaven, then at least in the land of convenience.

Into all this walks Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier). He's in Naples trying to get support from the Kingdom of Naples (remember, Italy wasn't unified until 1870) -- since the previous events, there's been a revolution in France, and now France and Britain are at war. Admiral Nelson meets Lady Hamilton, and as you can guess they hit it off as a sort of friends, especially because she's got a bit of influence with the Queen of Naples. Granted, he's already married back in Britain (and don't forget that Lady Hamilton is still married too), but then Nelson and Hamilton are only friends, right? Sure. Five more years pass, and Nelson returns to Naples, which by now is no longer receiving British warships. So Lady Hamilton goes out to Nelson's anchored ship, and this time, they fall in love. Now there are big problems, especially when Lady Nelson asks why the hell she should get a divorce and lose her position in society just so her husband can run off with this floozy. Who can blame her, even if we're supposed to look at her as the bad one because Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton are supposed to be tragic figures.

I don't know if I'd call it a problem with That Hamilton Woman, but one thing about movies with historical figures as the leads is that we already know from history when and how they die -- and even if you didn't know history, you know that Lady Hamilton is going to wind up poor since the story is being told in flashback. In the case of Lord Nelson, that death of course comes at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. His ships defeated the French fleet, but at the cost of his life. Lord Hamilton had already died, disinheriting Emma along the way, and Lord Nelson couldn't exactly leave anything to her in his will.

I cannot deny that That Hamilton Woman is a very well-made movie with a good cast and fine production values. I have to admit, however, that it's always left me a bit cold. That probably has a lot to do with the casting of Olivier and Leigh, and a bit with the melodramatic nature of the story. I have never particularly been a fan of Vivien Leigh, for reasons that I can't quite verbalize. But there's something about her performances for which I don't really care. Olivier isn't a favorite of mine, either, although I don't have quite the feelings about him that I do about Leigh. There are more of his performances that I like, such as next week's The Entertainer. That having been said, anybody who's a fan of Olivier, or especially of Leigh, is probably going to love this one.

That Hamilton Woman has received a DVD release, although it's courtesy of the Criterion collection, which means it's a bit more pricey.

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