I was going to call foul on the haters but I'll let Danny Peary in Cult Movies 3
do it for me.
Danny Peary wrote:
That Hamilton Woman is truly one of the greatest, most elegant, most mature romance movies. Leigh and Olivier play their scenes with such conviction and passion (the burning volcano in the background conveys their sexual longings) that they make their previous screen romances seem almost artificial, mere preludes ("semifinal" love matches?) to the real thing. I never tire of watching Leigh and Olivier together, and admiring their talents, grace, physical beauty, and sex appeal (no matter that Olivier's Nelson loses an eye and an arm), and trying to detect their feelings for each other when they made this film. So I see the film repeatedly. Still, my devotion doesn't compare to that of critic Andrew Sarris, whose love for the film is legendary. By 1970, as he wrote in the Village Voice, Sarris had already seen the film 83 times--not including television viewings!
Watching Leigh and Olivier play Emma and Nelson, you sense their love and appreciation for each other. It's hard not feeling emotional when Nelson dictates a letter to a deeply moved Emma, telling Lady Nelson that "Lady Hamilton is one of the very best women in the world, and an honor to her sex"; when Emma changes from happy-go-lucky to serious--as she does throughout the film--when she comes on board Nelson's ship and discovers that he lost an eye and arm in battle (her sorrowful expression may be due in part to Leigh being seasick from the rocking boat); when, in an intimate moment at an inn table, she guesses his calm expression denotes "Nelson allowing himself to be just a little bit happy" and he reveals it denotes "Nelson in love"; when she runs onto the Naples balcony to say good-bye to Nelson and, while that volcano spouts in the background, they kiss passionately and Nelson says, "I know that I must not come back...and I know nothing in this world can keep me away"; when, again on the balcony, as 1800 arrives, Emma adds Nelson's name to a list of people who determined eighteenth-century history, and Nelson kisses her, saying, "Now I've kissed you through two centuries"; when the gallant Nelson's first words upon being told he's dying are "Poor Emma--what will become of her?"; and when Emma pulls her shades and faints upon learning of Nelson's death. We see how fulfilling true love is, and how painful it can be.
Alexander Korda's best film is less a glorification of Nelson than a tribute to the bravery, intelligence, and resourcefulness of women. I think Korda was playing up to American women, whom he wanted to send their men into war against the Nazis. He wanted them to relate to Emma, who begins as a manipulative, self-obsessed, self-impressed young woman concerned only with bettering her own lot in life, but ends up giving up the man she loves (who loves her greatly but loves his country even more) and her happiness for the sake of the world.