This 1941 historical biopic from producer-director Alexander Korda about the illicit affair between the heroic nemesis of Napoleon, Admiral Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier), and the vivacious Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) benefits from the magnificent production design of Vincent Korda and some extra acting oomph drawn from a real-life adulterous affair between its two A-list stars. On the other hand, there’s an idea out there that it has been unjustly dismissed ever since its release as ponderous wartime propaganda and an overblown romance. I might say exactly the same thing, minus the “un.”
Essentially commissioned by wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who later proclaimed it his favorite movie, “That Hamilton Woman” suffers from some ham-fisted parallels between Hitler and Napoleon as well as a certain amount of hypocrisy on the question of empire. (English colonialism good! French colonialism bad!) Far worse for the movie’s entertainment value, however, is its tediously stolid hero, an awful lot of gassy romantic dialogue, ponderous pacing, and an excessive 125 minute running time. On the plus side, the young Vivien Leigh, fresh off “Gone With the Wind,” is allowed to show her powerfully sexy and funny sides, and the film’s relative frankness in dealing with an open adulterous affair is something of a miracle considering that this British production was shot in the U.S. and made under American censorship. Nevertheless, the extras on this typically crisp Criterion DVD make the case that the making-of story here is far more engaging than the actual movie.