Jane Austen's Life & Times

That Hamilton Woman: A Famous Romance Re-imagined

That Hamilton Woman (Criterion Collection) 2009The romance of Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Horatio Nelson might just rival Romeo and Juliette or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy as the greatest love story of all time. Moreover, their story is made all the more poignant because it is not a work of fiction created by a clever author pulling together bits of their own experience and idealized notions of the ultimate romance, but by actual well publicized and scandalous events of real people who made history during the Napoleonic age. And, quite remarkable people they were to boot; an infamously beguiling beauty and a brilliant naval hero both married to others, yet scandalously engaging in an ill-fated love affair that shaped history. 

My first introduction to Emma and Horatio’s ill-fated romance was in the 1941 movie That Hamilton Woman staring the stunningly beautiful Vivien Leigh and the dashingly handsome Laurence Olivier. As a young girl my mother’s excitement over any Vivien Leigh movies quickly influenced my admiration of her acting talent and consuming presence on screen. She graces some of my favorite classic romantic films from the movies Golden Age: Gone with the Wind, Waterloo Bridge and That Hamilton Woman. 1941 saw Leigh at the height of her beauty and popularity after winning the Oscar in 1939 for Gone with the Wind. During her troubled life she made less than twenty films in her career, but like Emma Hamilton, she will be remembered for her incandescent beauty, vivacity and alluring charm. Interestingly, Vivien is related to Jane Austen through Jane’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh.

Vivien Leigh as Emma, Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woman (1941)

Emma Hart dines at the Hamilton Villa, Naples
Laurence Olivier as Lord Nelson in That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Captain Nelson arrives in Naples

That Hamilton Woman was made at the request of Prime Minister Winston Churchill to stir British sympathy and patriotism during the height of the Second World War. The paring of Leigh and Olivier by producer/director Alexander Korda was brilliant. At the time of filming, Leigh and her co-star and real life inamorata Laurence Olivier were having their own scandalous affair to mirror Emma and Nelson. You can see all the real-life sparks ignite on film. The usually staid Larry Olivier is more passionate for his Viv as Lady Hamilton than I can ever recall on screen, far surpassing his other portrayals of famous romantic icons such as Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights (too fey) and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (too blasé). I am sure that historians could have a heyday ripping apart the accuracy of the screenplay, but this is a filmatic re-imagining of historical romance at its finest, and I love it!

Movie Romney portrait of Vivien Leigh as Emma Hart         Portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney

Vivien Leigh version and real portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney

Vivien Leigh as Emma, Lady Hamilton in That Hamilton Woma (1941)

Emma, Lady Hamilton revels after the Ball in Nelson’s honor

Emma, Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson

Emma and Nelson celebrate in Naples after the Nile victory 

The great news for That Hamilton Woman is that it has just been re-released on DVD for the first time by The Criterion Collection (squeee) and includes great extras and a restored high-definition digital transfer (though sadly not re-mastered and contains some nasty occasional film scratches). On viewing it again, I was as enchanted by the performances as memory served but amused by the historical inaccuracy of the costumes by designer René Hubert and hair styles (uncredited) which range from late eighteenth-century to mid Victorian to 1940’s. Watch Lady Hamilton’s frocks and dos and you will get my drift. Much of the narrative unfolds in Naples and the clothes looked very Marie Antoinetteish. I do not know anything about Italian fashion at the turn of the nineteenth-century but one would think that like the British they were also influenced by French court dress emulating Empire fashions. Many of Lady Hamilton’s bonnets looked like they were borrowed from Gone with the Wind, and (her hair Louisa) definitely mimicked Scarlet O’Hara’s ringlets and a more modern 1940’s rolled crown affair a la Betty Grable.

Vivien Leigh as Emma, Lady Hailton in non-Regency attire

Emma with non-Regency hairdo a la Betty Grable

Emma and Nelson, ill-fated lovers

Emma and Nelson, ill-fated lovers

Regardless of the fashion faux pas, Larry and Viv just sparkle, the supporting cast is stellar, the direction by Alexander Korda is effectively melodramatic, the art direction conjured up on a shoestring by Vincent Korda is stunning, and the sweeping music by Miklós Rózsa soothes over all the production flaws like a cup of tea on a cold day. Be sure to watch the extra features including a video interview with author and editor Michael Korda, Alexander’s nephew, who has a few plum antecedents about filming of the movie including his uncle not knowing which arm Nelson had lost in battle and a matter-of-fact mention of Olivier’s affair with actor Danny Kaye. 

Nelson at Trafalgar 1805

Nelson at Trafalgar “England expects that every man will do his duty”

Nelson's death at Trafalgar 1805, That Hamilton Woman

Nelson’s death: “Take care of poor Lady Hamilton” 

Pop this one in the ole DVD player and settle back for a two hankie cry-a-thon. This story is just screaming to be remade by the BBC if they ever venture back into bonnets and breaches again. Who can resist a scandalous love affair and Royal Naval officer in full regalia? Not me!

Horatio Nelson ca 1800 by Lemuel Francis Abbott         Detail of portrait of Emma Hart by George Romney (1791)

Portraits of Lord Nelson and Emma Hart

Rule, Britannia!   

 Synopsis

One of cinema’s most dashing duos, real-life spouses Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier live their greatest on-screen romance in this visually dazzling tragic love story from legendary producer-director Alexander Korda. Set against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars of the late eighteenth century, That Hamilton Woman is a gripping account of the scandalous adulterous affair between the British Royal Navy officer Lord Horatio Nelson and the renowned beauty Emma, Lady Hamilton, the wife of a British ambassador. With its grandly designed sea battles and formidable star performances, That Hamilton Woman (Winston Churchill’s favorite movie, which he claimed to have seen over eighty times) brings history to vivid, glamorous life.

Cast

Emma, Lady Hamilton – Vivien Leigh
Lord Horatio Nelson – Laurence Olivier
Sir William Hamilton – Alan Mowbray
Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon – Sara Allgood
Lady Frances Nelson – Gladys Cooper
Captain Hardy – Henry Wilcoxon
Rev. Nelson Halliwell Hobbes

Additional Information

Favorite books on Emma and Nelson in my library

17 thoughts on “That Hamilton Woman: A Famous Romance Re-imagined”

  1. If you like the story of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson, I higly recommend “The Volcano Lover” by Susan Sontag. It’s a post modern work of fiction based on this love story, very interesting.

    I’ve recently watched the film and it’s stunning, even with the inaccuracies you’ve rightly pointed out.

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  2. Wow – this sounds fantastic! I am a huge fan of Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Oliver, but I have never seen this movie! Now I know what to add to my Christmas List . . .

    Thanks for the great review!

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  3. I saw this film on television a couple of months ago and was also struck by the historical liberties taken in both fashion and fact. However, it was interesting to see Oliver and Leigh together, so romantic.

    There was a remake of sorts in 1973 with Peter Finch as Nelson and Glenda Jackson as Emma Hamilton, called “Bequest to the Nation” (or “the Nelson Affair” in some countries) based on Terence Rattigan’s play which was in turn based on E. Barrington’s novel. Finch was terrific, as was Glenda Jackson. The drama revolves around their meetngs in Bath and London around the time of the battle of Trafalgar. I recall an interview with Glenda Jackson where she said the biggest challenge was for wardrobe to try and make her skinny frame as voluptuous as the orginal Emma Hamilton, and they had to apply various igenious ruses to manufacture a cleavage for her. In this version, Emma is portrayed as a more sluttish, slovenly character which reflects her reputation of the times.

    In 2005 BBC Radio did a version of the original play with Branagh, and McTeer in the leads and Amanda Root playing Nelson’s wife.

    Seems niether version are available to view/listen to. Shame…

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    1. Thanks for sharing Joan. I would love to see the Finch Jackson version at some point. Hope they pull it out of the vault. Sorry to have missed the radio play. Amanda Root as Lady nelson seems off. I just can’t picture her as a stick in the mud. Maybe they will re-do that also! I can never have too much Emma and Nelson!

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  4. Nelson was kind of a sh*t but I have to admit when, at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I stood in front of the bloody, shot-up uniform he was wearing when he was fatally shot, I cried.

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  5. Frankly, my dear, it has never occurred to me to watch this movie, but now I feel I must. I never knew that Vivian Leigh was related to Austen–so that wasn’t a stage name! I thought Vivian Leigh was perfect as Scarlett O’Hara and quite good as Blanche duBois, but those are the only roles I’ve seen her in. This will be fun to watch now that I have some background on what to look for.

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  6. I pray one day they will remake this movie. Not that the Olivier/Leigh version is bad- it is my total favorite. I would love to see a more indepth story of the romance that the censors may have put a stop to in the 1941 movie. If you ever can try to get the Letters of Lord Nelson to Lady Emma Hamilton. I really have enjoyed reading the letters. He was so romantic. This movie has to be remade some day!

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    1. Hi Becki, I would be over the moon with joy if this movie was made into a mini-series or feature movie. Thanks for the rec on Lord Nelson’s letters to Lady Hamilton. I will check that out. Thanks for visiting. LA

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