Movie Monday: That Hamilton Woman! (1941)


I … I don’t know how I feel about this thing; if you’re going to dramatise some aspect of Nelson’s life, maybe his adulterous relationship with the woman who enabled his pathological narcissism is not going to be as good a movie as the bit with all the blazing battle action. But it was £1.50 and, y’know …

Actually, in fairness this is really the story of Lady Hamilton, who did have a pretty interesting life. The script and Leigh do a good job of making you feel sympathetic toward someone who is — basically through no fault of her own — a scheming, deceptive chancer. Unless, that is, the film expects us to believe her “I’m good! I know I’m good!” We shall see.

Emma Hart as Circe c.1782 George Romney 1734-1802 Bequeathed by Lady Wharton 1945
Emma Hart as Circe c.1782 George Romney 1734-1802 Bequeathed by Lady Wharton 1945

Also, I am deeply creeped out to learn that Amy Lyon changed her name to Emma Hart because Charles Greville wanted her to — apparently a certain respectability is demanded even of a gentleman’s mistress.

I’m not saying it was wartime, but when Olivier turns up as Nelson, the soundtrack literally just plays Rule Britannia. He tells the Hamiltons that Britain and France are at war while she’s fretting about why the French ambassador hasn’t replied to her dinner invitation, and she gets a great line:

War? Well, that’s torn it. Bang goes the French ambassador.

I am very impressed that after giving his speech about how tiny little Britain fights alone when all of Europe is in deadly peril, Alan Mowbray doesn’t turn to the camera and go ‘ehhh? Ehhhh?‘ Apparently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee were angry at Korda for trying to mess with American neutrality — but their hearing was scheduled for, er, mid-December of 1941.

Anyway, over the course of the war and some good old-fashioned maiming, Nelson returns to Naples, falls in lerve with her, wins the Battle of the Nile off-screen and returns to a hero’s welcome. But everything is going to hell in Naples; the Neapolitan campaign is about to kick off. I was disappointed that Nelson didn’t react to being made a baron the way he did in real life; he complained bitterly about it because he didn’t think it was enough. They garble the account of the evacuation of Naples a bit, and they leave out most of the hanging of prisoners and so on.

I think it is a bit of a shame that they’ve got Vivien Leigh playing “the most beautiful woman in the world” and she’s about half the size of Emma Hamilton.

The portrayal of the Nelson family is not sympathetic. But having Lady Nelson around makes Emma get all moody about how what they’re doing is wrooooong. This is not, as far as I can see, something she ever believed in real life. She sort of suggests that he can’t get divorced because he’s a national symbol, but I mean … she was a professional mistress before they met, y’know?

As William Hamilton dies, there’s some good discussion of the financial situation; it’s hard to make that sound non-mercenary, but I think that’s how people discussed these things.

And then a conversation about how “you cannot make peace with dictators.” Topical!

Anyway, you know how this ends. Trafalgar, England expects, jolly tars gazing at the signal flags, stirring music. A choir literally sings “Heart of Oak.” The model ships are rather charming. Nelson’s death scene is based on the published account, but he dies with a flopping motion that absolutely calls out for an URK! But the main Leigh plotline handles it with a certain melodramatic dignity.

To summarise, Emma Hamilton can fuck right off (seriously, read that thing she said about Lady Nelson), but this movie is not so bad. Olivier is … Olivier. Fortunately he’s playing a boring stiff.

Movie Monday: That Hamilton Woman! (1941)

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