[Film Review] That Hamilton Woman (1941)

That Hamilton Woman poster

Title: That Hamilton Woman
Year: 1941
Country: UK
Language: English, Italian, French
Genre: Drama, History, Romance
Director: Alexander Korda
Walter Reisch
R.C. Sherriff
Music: Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Vivien Leigh
Laurence Olivier
Alan Mowbray
Sara Allgood
Gladys Cooper
Henry Wilcoxon
Heather Angel
Gilbert Emery
Miles Mander
Rating: 6.5/10

That Hamilton Woman 1941

Alexander Korda’s historical drama pivots on and beautifies the real-life adulterous romance between Emma Hamilton (Leigh), a courtesan-turned-wife-of-British-ambassador and British Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (Olivier) during the dawn of the Napoleonic war in the beginning of 19th century.

First and foremost, it is a star vehicle unflinchingly banks on Leigh and Olivier, the then newlyweds’ prestige, then gauging by its release date, it also functions as a patriotic war propaganda urging USA to join the ongoing WWII against the Axis. (which soon would be precipitated by Japan’s stealth raid on Pearl Harbor) However, after watching this sketchy account of the scandalous relationship against a very broad historic outline which Korda and his screenwriters have devised, one’s natural leaning would tend to be rather ambiguous, Horatio is an out-and-out national hero (Olivier gives a very measured, even somewhat stiff performance which doesn’t consonant with his reputation), who devotes his life to fight for the right cause and accrues many victories for his fatherland, which costs him an eye, an arm and eventually his life. Yet, in the end of the day, his country downright fails him, too moralistic to pay due care to Emma, the woman he truly loves, after his untimely demise, not to mention, it is “that woman” who plays a critical role not once but twice (according to the movie’s storyline), when Nelson and the Great Britain desperately need aids from Naples, she proves to be much more tactful than her then husband Sir William Hamilton (Mowbray), the British ambassador to Naples. Thus, why would anyone be spurred by this account into laying down one’s life in the face of that one’s country cannot even promise to safeguard the ones he or she loves ?

So, the war propaganda train has gone off-rail, but as a showpiece, Vivien Leigh is utterly ravishing in this tailor-made character, which boils down to her actions, reactions, line-delivery, miens and gestures, are all highlighted with subdued close-ups exude a dainty aura of divinity and desirability, and the story is almost exclusively told through her eye’s-view, a young woman unwittingly sold by her dissolute lover to enter a marriage (under which circumstance she caves in) where she is regarded as a precious art collection by her well-off husband, impeccable, forever young but with no love, and for once, the husband, is not a man possessed by the green-eyed monster when Emma finds passion and attraction in another man, an apotheosis of virtues, he can suavely dole out constructive advice to her but never stands in their way. Emma is not a grasping soul, mirrored by the happy-go-lucky temperament of her mother (a jolly and welcomingly earthy Sara Allgood), she isn’t craving for William’s fortune because she knows she doesn’t deserve it, but there is no way Horatio can marry her because Lady Nelson (an animosity-simmering Gladys Cooper) refuses to relinquish her title and gives her blessing to the love birds. At any rate, Emma and Horatio spend their last days together in modest comforts, until he is summoned for the famous Battle of Trafalgar, and for the first time (also the last time), we are steered to the epic sea battle scenery, understandably jerry-built in its studio-bound model conjuring, nevertheless an impressive feat in the eyes of its original audience.

As ineffable as Ms. Leigh is, the film itself doesn’t pan out as a classical stunner, impeded by its innately episodic narrative, a rash flashback frame and a lackluster co-star, it is best to be served as a scrumptious feast to ogle Ms. Leigh’s glamor and glory in her acme, and taking into account of her rather scanty filmography, it might as well sneaks into that must-see list for film lovers all over the world.


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