Screening History: “That Hamilton Woman” (1941)

If there’s any genre I love as much as the epic, it’s the costume drama. With all of its sumptuous decor, its melodramatic excess, and its focus on women, it’s a genre tailor-made (it would seem) for the discerning homosexual.

Such, indeed, is That Hamilton Woman, the 1941 film by Alexander Korda, starring the radiant Vivien Leigh and the dashing Laurence Olivier.

Vivien Leigh plays the titular role of Emma Hamilton, a commoner who becomes, first, the wife of the British ambassador Naples and, later, the mistress of the famous admiral Horatio Nelson. Their affair is the scandal of society, and ultimately Nelson must choose between his love for Emma and his duty to his country as the admiral and she, likewise, must decide whether to continue weaving her net about him or to let him go. The two of them must repeatedly confront the essential conflict between their personal love for one another and the responsibility that Horatio has to his country, given that he is one of the few commanders who stands between Napoleon and global domination. In the end, she sends him off to his duty, even though it means the end of their love.

At the beginning of the film, Emma has fallen on hard times, her once-great beauty diminished by years of penury. Yet even the makeup and bedraggled clothing cannot entirely efface Leigh’s exquisite beauty, which radiates outward rom the screen, limned by the dim light coming from outside her prison cell. Indeed, Leigh is one of those talents of old films whose face was made for the camera. With her fine cheekbones, full lips, and slightly-wide (and incredibly expressive) eyes, Leigh’s Emma frequently gazes off into the distance, her luminous eyes seeming to gaze into a future that can never be realized. Even when she sits in a jail cell, she seems to command our gaze.

Indeed, it is precisely Leigh’s performance that endows Emma with her tremendous presence, as a woman whose desires motivate the narrative. Given that the entire film is told as a flashback, I would argue that it is Emma’s perspective that dominates the entire film. In other words, through her perspective that we understand world-historical events to have another element besides the doings of great men on the stage of history. As such, Emma also comes across as a woman determined to see her desires fulfilled, even if that means that she goes against the strictures that society has placed upon women and their sexual behavior.

Emma’s great misfortune, however, is that the world she lives in is utterly incapable of seeing her as anything other than “that Hamilton woman,” an epithet always delivered with contempt, pity, or vituperation. And while she believes that love is the only thing she needs to sustain herself, a series of events have clearly brought her to the point that she is living on the streets, subject to the uncaring justice of the state. Through it all, however, Emma radiates strength, grace, and beauty.

Olivier as Nelson is a bit more unrestrained than one usually sees, and sometimes his performance veers dangerously close to scenery-chewing. However, this seems appropriate, given that he’s playing a man noted for his relentless energy and naval brilliance (it wasn’t every commander, after all, that dared to go after Napoleon Bonaparte). He certainly bears with him that signature Olivier scowl.

The film’s visual design is truly opulent, amply conveying to a jaundiced modern eye the splendour of a bygone era, when countries and individuals bestrode the world like ancient colossi. Despite its grand themes and historical concerns, That Hamilton Woman is equally adept at conveying the deep personal and emotional currents that have an impact on the actions of the great. For the film, Emma’s love of Nelson is true, rich, and deep, which makes its demise with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar all the more wrenching, for we know that Emma will be left with nothing except his illegitimate daughter.

The film’s final tragedy is that it denies us as viewers a view of the events that led Emma from being the mistress of one of the most powerful men in England to a beggar wandering the street. We are left yearning for what it is that fills in that lacuna, even as we also know that to see it would shatter the magnificent illusion that it has already spent so much time constructing. In refusing to grant us this image of her degradation, Emma retains her control on her own story until the very last, he weary countenance gazing into a past that can never be recaptured and a future devoid of even the remotest possibility of joy or love.

Rousing and resonant, That Hamilton Woman is a visually stunning exploration about the ways in which women are forced to maneuver the halls of power. And the punishment that often greets them when they do.

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