Earlier this year, I reviewed Alexander Korda’s Eclipse box set that featured his “Private Lives” series with a mixed result. Some I loved (The Private Lives of Henry VIII) others I found really out of place (Catherine the Great). My chief complaint was that there was one film missing from the set that fit thematically: That Hamilton Woman, which is now being released by Eclipse’s parent company, Criterion.
Emma Hamilton (played here by Vivien Leigh) was an uneducated, beautiful Englishwoman who worked her way up society’s ladder as a maid to theater actress and then graduating to model and dancer. She would go on to become the muse of artist George Romney, sitting for more than 60 historical- and mythological- themed portraits. As many young women of our current time could probably attest to, Emma became more known for her charm and her beauty than for her talent.
That Hamilton Woman begins around this time, just as Emma’s lover, Charles Francis Greville is dumping her onto his much-older uncle, Sir William Hamilton, who was a collector of antiques and precious items, including a Romney painting of Emma. Hamilton saw the young woman as another acquisition to his expansive collection, a priceless living doll added to the objets d’art.
Emma was sent to his home in Naples, Italy completely unaware of this plan to get rid of her, to pass her off to another man, and was at first reportedly very unhappy with her new arrangement. But because she had no financial autonomy of her own, nor any real power, Emma, much like another character famously played by Leigh, Blanche DuBois (in A Streetcar Named Desire), had to rely on the kindness of strangers whether she preferred it or not.
The film opens by following a weathered, beaten figure lurching through the streets of Calais. She hobbles into a vintner’s shop and steals a bottle of wine. Caught by the authorities, she fights back and in the process causes a brawl in the street. The old woman is thrown in jail for hitting an officer, and while there, she recounts her sad tale, the framework for the story of the legendary younger version of herself, told in flashback, works very well with renowned beauty Leigh in old-age make-up, dark circles, and what film critic Molly Haskell (From Rape to Reverence) calls in her whip-smart essay included in the package, “a nimbus of wild hair”. Leigh, eschewing movie-star glamour for a look of hard-scrabble poverty, begins to ruefully tell the story, much to her cell mate’s disbelief.
It was in Naples that she became known as a great hostess and refined her palette for art and performance, even going so far as to marry the Sir William, becoming “Lady” Hamilton. It was here that she would meet, under a variety of circumstances, Nelson (Laurence Olivier). The public spectacle that followed was not unlike the situations of some the above-mentioned young women in present day who gain notoriety for doing nothing substantial or of real worth. The bizarre love triangle of William, Emma and Nelson played out like a reality television show and the public was fascinated by the eccentric behaviors of all involved, intrigued by the odd behavior of the rich and famous, particularly their romantic lives.
Vivien Leigh as Emma Lady Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Lord Horatio Nelson—image courtesy Criterion Collection
This film took on another meta-dimension when handsome co-stars Leigh and Olivier became romantically involved with one another during the film’s making, mirroring the tantalizing tabloid-style romance of the film’s story, as well as anticipating the contemporary obsession with celebrity romance and private lives. Their relationship on set caused a public scandal, which at that time, where private issues of Post-Hays Code morality were still firmly implanted into any Hollywood production, was a particularly damning element.
Not making things any easier was the reported terrible, unprofessional and unpredictable behavior of Leigh, both on set and off. This has been a much-debated topic among people who knew the actress and the reports from this particular set are mixed. Michael Korda, son of production designer Vincent, is featured in an exclusive interview on the disc saying that his “Uncle Alex” was enamored of Leigh and considered her a great friend, yet reports of her volatile temperament around this time suggest that she might have been more of a bane.
In either case the actress, a two-time Oscar winner for Best Actress (for her iconic work in Gone with the Wind and A Streetcar Named Desire) is shockingly good as Emma Hamilton, a characterization that gives both Blanche and Scarlett O’Hara a run for their money and allows the actress to explore another side of her own fragile psyche. Playing the character in the “older” scenes, with full old-age make-up, stooped, arthritic posture and a gravelly alcoholic’s cadences, Leigh makes the viewer forget who she is altogether and the thoughtful transformation is stunning. In the “younger” scenes, she tackles the part with exuberance and dedication and is the Leigh that film history remembers: vivacious, unexpected, crackling with the energy of a bright-burning sparkler on the Fourth of July.
Opposite Leigh is the equally iconic Olivier, who gives a similarly overlooked, utterly technical performance in which he ages (he applied his own make-up, something he was a master of), loses limbs and other body parts, and also does excellent vocal work of his own. It as though the two mythical lovers challenged one another to rise to the top of their game, and the attention to detail from both actors is meticulous.
The status of That Hamilton Woman as both a cunning propaganda film and the favorite film of Prime Minister Winston Churchill add another interesting dimension to Korda’s grand epic, which was constructed and produced, reputedly, on a shoestring budget. That Hamilton Woman is a hidden treasure from the director, combining the grand traditions of large-scale cinematic escapism and classic romance with the blunt force of a propaganda film’s fervent nationalism. Everything is beautiful: the people, the sets, the gorgeous tracking shots, the clothes.
Korda’s gift for framing scenes with an architect’s eye (as he did in his Private Lives films), symmetrically, mathematically – highlights the economy of his vision as no space is ever wasted onscreen. Even though the world was at war and the budget was tight, Korda and company made their film look like a million bucks.