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Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: That Hamilton Woman

Hello, Persephoneers! Let’s wrap up another long week with a historical romance, starring one of classic film’s greatest couples. This week’s movie pick, That Hamilton Woman, released in 1941, was directed by Alexander Korda and stars Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh as real-life lovers Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton. The couple had just been married at the time of filming, and that added a certain appeal to moviegoers.

Movie poster for That Hamilton Woman
Poster for the film. Image via Wikipedia.

The film opens with a poor, drunk Emma Hamilton regaling the story of her life to another woman who shares her cell in an English debtor’s prison. She started out as Emma Hart, a courtesan, artist’s model, and dancer who became mistress to Charles Francis Greville. She and her mother have just arrived in Naples, where Charles’s uncle, Sir William Hamilton, serves as England’s ambassador. In time, Emma learns that Charles isn’t going to come for her as promised; Sir William paid off Charles’s gambling debts in exchange for Emma. Sir William makes an honest woman of her, and Emma shines as English ambassadress. She becomes BFFs of a sort with the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina of Austria, and her parties are the stuff of legend. It’s at one of these parties that Emma makes the acquaintance of the very dashing Captain Horatio Nelson, one of the most revered navy men in England’s war against Napoleon. He is dazzled by her, and the two embark on a years-long, yet scandalous, love affair.

Still of Olivier and Leigh from That Hamilton Woman
A still from the film. Image via Wikipedia.

Emma and William Hamilton eventually returned to London, and soon the affair between her and Nelson become an open secret. Nelson and his wife separate over his infidelity, while Sir William is more inclined to turn a blind eye to it and lived in a sort of menage a trois situaton with them. Emma bears Nelson a daughter, Horatia. After Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, a heartbroken Emma dissipates into a life of povety and alcoholism. At one point, they are so poor that her daughter Horatia has to pawn a shawl for some money. After Emma’s death, Horatia is taken in and raised by Nelson’s family and goes on to live a much happier life.

When That Hamilton Woman was released, some American isolationist organizations believed that it, The Great Dictator, and Foreign Correspondent were being put out by Britain to help America gear up to enter the war. There was some very pro-British subtext, they argued, and this was why it was, among other things, a propaganda film. Indeed, much like the British during World War II, the English were fighting against Napoleon, who was bent on dominating all of Europe just like Hitler intended. If anything, it was more of a propaganda film for a British audience instead of an American one because it tells the story of one of England’s greatest war heroes who helped to engineer the defeat of Napoeleon and who helped England emerge triumphant from a terrible war. Its point was to give British audiences hope that eventually the war would be over, and that Britain would beat the odds and the conquering army of Hitler.

There is quite a bit of supplementary material on both Emma and Nelson, but I would recommend Norah Lofts’s biography of Emma for further reading.

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