That Hamilton Woman

I remember this movie being good, but I have to admit that I may have underrated it. What’s more, the commentary track and interview material on the new Criterion release add immeasurably to one’s enjoyment of the film and understanding of its place in history. As a piece of entertainment, it is exemplary, showcasing two great stars—who were still newlyweds at the time of the film’s release—at the height of their beauty and skill. Vivien Leigh (by this time a star to American audiences,…

following her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara) is marvelous as the young courtesan who becomes a skillful manipulator—and a passionate lover. Laurence Olivier (having made his mark in Hollywood as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights) plays a man much older than himself, whose military sense of correctness melts under the gaze of Lady Hamilton. When they are together on screen they are so strikingly beautiful they just might take your breath away. As an example of historical drama, it’s pretty good, and just accurate enough to provide a sense of world events and personalities at a crucial time in the history of England and Europe. Finally, as a timely and significant piece of propaganda in the early days of World War II, before the United States was involved, it is absolutely fascinating.

Film historian Ian Christie offers an outstanding commentary track that not only traces the background of this production, but thoroughly explores its historical bona fides, separating fact from fiction. A video interview with Michael Korda, the fabled literary lion whose father, Vincent, served as art director on the film and whose uncle, Alexander, produced and directed it, is utterly fascinating. Korda, who charted his family’s story in the book Charmed Lives, is a great raconteur who paints a vivid picture of his family and the events that led to this film’s production—not in England, but in Hollywood. That remains one of the enduring curiosities of That Hamilton Woman, that such a quintessentially British movie was made in its entirety in California. The cast is completely British, including such longtime Hollywood residents as Alan Mowbray, who gives a witty and unusually subtle performance as Leigh’s husband Lord Hamilton.

Vincent Korda’s sets are opulent, almost beyond description, although both Christie and Korda insist that the film was made quickly and economically. One could never tell from looking at it! True, there isn’t a single exterior shot in the film, but it’s an exemplar of Hollywood studio filmmaking at its zenith, including the elaborate naval battle that climaxes the story, done entirely with miniatures in a tank. (Michael Korda remembers the fun of playing with these not-so-tiny boats when he was seven-and-a-half-years old.)

The disc also includes the original trailer and a promotional radio show from the period, while the accompanying booklet features a newly written essay on the film by Molly Haskell. Needless to say, the film itself looks beautiful—almost as beautiful as its two shining stars.
(Criterion Collection)

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