History remembers Admiral Nelson for his great victories against Napoleon at sea. But, as the popular 1941 film, That Hamilton Woman, shows, he also had an affair with a woman who achieved a great deal of fame in her own right as a society figure and beautiful portrait model. The film, unmistakeably pitched as anti-Hitler propaganda to promote Britain before the U.S. joined the war, was made primarily as a decadent romance by director Alexander Korda. It remains to-day a lovely indulgence.
The adulterous couple were played by a couple married in real life, Vivian Leigh as Lady Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Admiral Nelson. Although Olivier had already starred in Wuthering Heights and Rebecca, Leigh is unmistakeably placed as centre attraction here, likely owing something to the success of Gone with the Wind.
The story is presented from her point of view and we're given a version of her life story as close as the Hays code would allow--and a bit further. She mentions that there had been "other men" in her life before her marriage but doesn't go into detail, certainly not mentioning dancing naked on a gentleman's dinner table at fifteen or the illegitimate child she bore and was forced to give up as a condition of remaining mistress in the household of another gentleman. She's still indignant when she winds up in Naples, expecting to meet one fiance and finds she's been sold off to another, the British Ambassador, Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). He tells her explicitly his intention is to have her in his home as an ornament, as much as his collection of statues, but also tells her she shall live comfortably.
She does exploit her position cleverly and by the time Nelson finally appears in the film she's able to reach the ear of the Queen and get him the troops he wants faster than her husband can, who would have to go through proper and slower channels. Nelson has an oddly passive role in the film--we hear about his victories at sea but never see them until Trafalgar at the climax in which his primary action is to get shot and wish to see Emma.
It seems impossible that anyone in real life could be as noble or as powerful as Emma is shown to be but the filmmakers had an uphill battle against public morality. It was around ten years later that Ingrid Bergman became an outcast in Hollywood because she and Roberto Rossellini became lovers without being married. Still, the real life Emma certainly did suffer a great deal more than she deserved and is an eminently suitable model for great romantic drama. Vivian Leigh bore enough of a resemblance to her, too, that a number of publicity stills were released where she was posed like the real Emma in her many famous portraits by George Romney.
She's very good in the film, a woman whose pride is certainly well earned, and you can see why Nelson becomes so devoted to her. That Hamilton Woman is available on The Criterion Channel.
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An active Queen bestows a chequered ball.
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