That Hamilton Woman-1941
Starring-Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh
Scott’s Review #779
Reviewed June 27, 2018
That Hamilton Woman (1941) is an obscure, black and white gem that stars legendary actors and real-life couple Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. Providing a story of an old-fashioned style romance, war battles, and dazzling cinematography, the film succeeds as a classic film that should be better remembered than it is. The overall theme here is a tragic love story with a sad ending.
One of the best aspects of That Hamilton Woman is witnessing the super-couple team of Leigh and Olivier act opposite one other. The actors individual talents are reason enough, but combined make this a fascinating viewing experience. The curiosity of the pairing of big stars in their heyday is a delight, highly appealing and both actors do not disappoint. One wonders whether they were acting or otherwise enjoying the experience.
That Lady Hamilton begins with a jarring scene in which the title character, also known as Emma, Lady Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) is thrown into debtor’s prison after stealing booze in France. The rest of the story is told via flashbacks as she regales her fellow prisoners with how she wound up in her current state. Her former life starkly contrasts as Emma appears as a young woman with hope, promise, and riches. It is hard to imagine how her life turned out so badly which gives the film a quality of strong intrigue.
The film then has a “riches to rags” element as the story is told in reverse. Full of energy, British Emma moves with her mother to the Kingdom of Naples where she marries the affluent (and much older) Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), presumably for his money. When handsome Admiral Horatio Nelson (Olivier) appears on the scene, the pair fall madly in love. They face tremendous hurdles, however, as the war rages on and each is unfaithful to their respective spouses.
Since the film was made scarcely two years after the epic romance Gone with the Wind (1939), one cannot help but compare Leigh’s portrayal of Emma to Scarlett O’Hara. At times Emma comes across as a British version of the southern lass, especially as she is clad in gorgeous gowns or romancing men. However, as the film develops she becomes a much more sympathetic character and certainly less of a vixen. Still, there are plenty of similarities for viewers to draw from.
The role of Lady Frances Nelson (Gladys Cooper) is completely one-note so the rooting value is never in doubt. The audience is firmly in the corner of Emma and Horatio and this is clearly the film’s intention. With that said, Cooper does a fantastic job at making her character completely unlikable. Her icy, vengeful spirit is in perfect balance with the sympathetic lead characters. The fact that Horatio and Emma are adulterers, especially for the year the film was made, is not fully explored.
To be critical, and presumably since the film is very old, the video quality is not the greatest. If the film was in color the gorgeous Italian landscapes and Leigh’s lovely costumes would have appeared even more lavish and picturesque. But due to the age of the film not much can be done about it unless it is decided to repackage the disc or make it a Blu-ray offering. Still, the luminous mountains and lush oceans of southern Italy are frequently featured throughout the film, which is a real treat.
Purely a showcase for newlyweds Olivier and Leigh to dish their real-life romance for mainstream audiences, That Hamilton Woman (1941) must have been a big deal at the time released. While suffering a bit from lackluster film quality, the story itself is quite hearty with lots of romantic scenes combined with loud, bombastic battle scenes and a bit of British and Italian history thrown in. Sadly, this film is largely forgotten, but a good watch for fans of the legendary stars.