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That Hamilton Woman (dir. Alexander Korda) was shot during the second World War, and is obviously a propaganda film. The most successful thing it propagates is the importance of remembering Vivian Leigh (Lady Hamilton) and her talents.

It can be said about the film that it hasn’t aged well, that is outside of Vivian Leigh. There are actors that seem always fresh, always contemporary, Gene Hackman comes to mind.  Leigh, whose body of work is mostly unseen by me, here has a presence that would be as modern here in 2009 as it was in 1941. She is permanently present.

As for the film itself, the majority of it is an equal mix common melodrama and Ra-Ra patriotism. The patriotism is to be expected, as it was made to help morale in the British citizens in their fight against Germany. Speeches made by Lord Nelson have as much to do with the threat of Napoleon (who he was fighting) as Hitler. They carry the same sentiment, but not the power, of Paul Heinrid’s Victor Laszlo in Casablanca.

That might have to do with Laurence Olivier’s performance as Lord Nelson. Olivier’s Nelson comes across arrogant and self-important. A man consumed by his work, yet strangely aloof from his situation. There is a way for that to be engaging, dashing even, but not here.

Lord Nelson, in this performance, is not, in any way, accessible. It’s hard to see why someone would fall in love with him.

Which brings us to an interesting conundrum of the film: Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton love affair. The film is a romance. And one drawn from the classic archetype, the one where the lovers find themselves in loveless relationships, therefore its justified that they enter into an affair. It’s for their hearts-sake that they endeavor into this forbidden love. The film banks on us wanting them to be together. But should adultery be rooted for?

The film chooses an interesting, but unsuccessful, method of articulating its opinions of the lovers.

Though the majority of the film is crammed with sense of love and admiration of the what Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton were able to accomplish together, there is an unnecessary device employed by the film. The body of the film is bookended by Lady Hamilton in poverty. As if poverty, is what she deserves. There is no reason for Director Alexander Korda to include these scenes in the film, unless he wants the audience to feel that Lady Hamilton’s being punished. Wouldn’t it be enough to show her broken hearted by the news that her betrothed is dead?

‘No, that is not enough’, the film defiantly says. ‘She should be punished for being a woman of a frivolous nature. True, she was a woman who helped the British navy defeat Napoleon, but she sullied a Legendary soldier’s legacy.’

This is why the film is confusing, and ultimately unsuccessful. It plays both sides of the fence. Lord Nelson dies a hero, Lady Hamilton dies a pauper.*

Without the opening and closing sequences, Lady Hamilton is human: full of faults and issues, but also one that is trying to be happy, rising from abject poverty to that of station of importance. (A very American ideal, by the way.)

The film counters this by presenting her as destitute. The film would have been better served if they had just printed the legend. Heroes have no need for facts.

*This is factually correct. He did die at sea, and she did die in the gutter. But also she had at least three children with different men, was a prostitute and was rather fat by the time she met Lord Nelson. So, the question is: Why choose to include only one of these facts, unless you wanted to make a point about her?


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