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That Hamilton Woman

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 2, 2015

Definitely the Tradition of Quality (cf. F. Truffaut, 1954), but it doesn’t play stodgily at all. (That’s actually true of a lot of the films that Truffaut excoriated.) Could it be the charge of a real romance, going on during the course of production? Or the fact that the clearly illicit components of the story are quite frankly and unfussily portrayed? That doesn’t mean immoral advocacy, by the way, but only historical responsibility. If these things happened, then they happened. This is not to say that we exactly get the whole story here. Still, the personal affair between Admiral Nelson (or M. Olivier) and Emma Hamilton (Mlle Leigh) is frequently and intelligently enough set off against the affairs of State, and of States, such that That Hamilton Woman ends up being quite civilized, and quite informative.

Victor Korda’s settings, the visuals generally, are very impressive. (Rudolph Maté shot Dreyer’s Joan of Arc film!) They provide a fitting frame for a number of very persuasive performances as well. On several occasions these potentially theatrical elements are bolstered by a quite electrifying pulling out of the cinematic stops. A case in point is a particularly passionate meeting, and the especially heart-wrenching separation that followed. That was described vaguely! You’ll definitely recognize it. Sequences like these don’t read as Tradition of Quality at all, but rather as grand opera, and that most satisfyingly.

Here’s something that we don’t always look for, though maybe we should. This looks like it might have been fun to make! It’s definitely fun to watch. Ms. Leigh is lovely! Special commendation to Allan Mowbray’s character and performance. He makes something out of the cuckold’s role, adding greatly to both tragedy and dignity as he does so. Romantic or soap opera rumours may be right, after a fashion, but what this really gets are the subtleties of power and influence, and tiny and yet enormous ways in which they pick away at and eventually erode your resolve, or yourself. It’s in the bookends, with this poor alcoholic woman. It might be in the eventual trajectory of these actors’ lives. But that’s none of one’s business, is it? They certainly collaborated to make a film to be reckoned with.