There exists a problem in classic literature and it resides in the presentation of women. They are rarely given any agency, any sense of control over their fates, and are, instead, merely fodder for whatever Hero’s Journey the male lead endures. It’s not uncommon in our modern era for imaginative retellings of other classics to offer a renewed look at the stories we think we know. Author Seth Grahame-Smith attempted this with his 2009 reimagining of Jane Austin’s Pride & Prejudice by adding zombies into the mix. His retelling made the women warriors, though it remained quite confined to Austin’s work. Perhaps this is what makes the cinematic adaptation by director Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City) of Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel Ophelia so compelling and rich. It acknowledges Shakespeare’s original play, Hamlet, but the version the audience knows largely remains in the shadows. This provides an incredible opportunity to mold a story of power and conviction around a character who’s been neglected and abused since the 16th century. In the hands of McCarthy, screenwriter Semi Chellas (American Woman), and Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) in an emotionally-powered performance, Ophelia makes you believe, for just a moment, that destiny is a thing which can be rewritten. But only for a moment.
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, but no one knows it yet. Instead, it’s a time of celebration as King Hamlet (Nathaniel Parker) and his wife Gertrude (Naomi Watts) prepare to send their 15-year old son, Prince Hamlet (Jack Cunningham-Nuttall), to university. As Prince Hamlet prepares to leave, young Ophelia (Mia Quiney) catches the queen’s eye and is enlisted as a handmaiden. Even as the years pass, a curious and strong-willed young girl turns into a confident, independent woman (Ridley) who’s earned the confidence of the Queen and is entrusted with her secrets. All that Ophelia has, however, begins to change as series of terrible incidents around Elsinore Castle beckon the return of Hamlet (George MacKay), setting all on a terrible path of misfortune and pain.
It’s obvious from the beginning of Ophelia that audiences are in for a very specific experience. Via voiceover from Ridley, we’re told “… you may think you know my story …” as she floats in a river, flowers clutched in her hand, just as audiences expect to find her. As the camera pulls in, the body starts to dip below the surface appearing as if slowly consumed by stars radiating from within. The voiceover indicates the specific perspective of the story, the imagery plays into the woeful fate of the much-abused Ophelia, and the stars embed a sense of magic and whimsy. Before a single familiar name is placed before the audience, McCarthy makes it plain what’s going to come next, yet there really is no way to prepare for it. What follows seems, initially, as merely a playful take on the morose tale, but slowly reveals itself as a deeper character examination of the players. Where Hamlet’s focus is broad and loud, Ophelia’s is specific and quiet, offering audiences a “what if” look at the relationships which populate Elisonore Castle, providing an opportunity to create more than icons of villainy but people struggling with loneliness, aging, and the constriction of gender roles.
The ability to dig into characters like Ophelia and Gertrude, and in a small way Uncle Claudius, played with venomous disdain by Clive Owen (Inside Man), is what makes Ophelia more than the self-referential approach audiences have enjoyed in either Tom Stoppard production 1990’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or 1998’s Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love. Rather than being Hamlet’s words and actions lead the audience to project onto them, the story we know of lust and revenge becomes more concrete through Ophelia’s behind the scenes access as a handmaiden. Few are the villains they seem and lust is born out of resentment and abandonment. Ophelia pulls no punches in its depictions of women’s roles from a historical perspective. Ophelia, for example, is seen as an uncultivated woman because she shuns jewelry, enjoys placing flowers in her hair, and knows how to read thanks to Laertes (played in an understated performance from Tom Felton). Historically, this makes her a bit of a black sheep because a woman of her station would have different ideals in order to attract a mate. Within the confines of Ophelia, these are traits which endear her further to Gertrude and, later, Hamlet. This depictions of Ophelia matters because it is the foundation from which the rest of the characters are compared. How they view her, speak to her, and otherwise engage her all stem from here. Through this, characters like Gertrude are viewed as more than on the page. In Gertrude’s case, she’s given an entire life which expands her beyond the role of Hamlet’s mother, King Hamlet’s widow, or King Claudius’s wife. Like Ophelia, Gertrude is given a chance to take an active role in a story which has so often made her reactionary or a victim.
Solidifying the notion that Ophelia is its own story is the way the narrative consistently places the play in the background. Sometimes this is done literally – in a lovely piece of staging which places Hamlet out of focus in the background as he approaches Laertes for their duel with Ophelia in the immediate foreground walking in sync – though frequently it’s played as something that happens around Ophelia – like the death of her father Polonius (Dominic Mafham). This approach merely serves to remind the audience that certain events must happen in a specific way. Where Ophelia makes its impact is both in what happens outside the events of Hamlet and within them, how the moments outside the play provide a new insight to the moments within, making quite a few more heartrending than as presented by Shakespeare. Much of the credit here goes to Klein for providing the inspiration and to Chellas for the adaptation, but McCarthy’s direction is not to be ignored in presenting these moments. Like the aforementioned staging, the audience is forced to focus on Ophelia and how she is in that moment. We cannot look away as she makes her own choices outside Hamlet’s shadow. The whole film is presented this way, always putting Ophelia’s perspective first and, in doing so, manages to rejuvenate a centuries-old play.
For those of you worry that Ophelia is either some dingy period piece or actors indulging in the challenge of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, let us dispel your concerns now. Though the costumes by Massimo Cantini Parrini (Dogman) do capture the era in the way audiences expect from a Shakespeare production, they are also not driven by flair but by a historical context. As such, so much of Ophelia feels grounded and tangible, even if the elements within sometimes harken back tropes of Shakespeare (ghosts, magic, and witches). This is, of course, backed by a wonderful score from Steven Price (Gravity/Baby Driver) which oscillates between the mythical tone the opening of Ophelia implies while also maintaining sounds of the suggested period, an initially disparate notion which results in a wonderful blend as the music overlays the actions of the narrative. Then there’s the dialogue. Rather than try to replicate the Bard’s words, a more common tongue is utilized without stripping the film of the context of the original dialogue. So, though there’s barely a couplet in the whole film, Ophelia retains the essence of what makes Hamlet continue to resonate.
Some are likely to cry “forced feminism” at the notion of an Ophelia-centric story, one which makes her the victor of her life, not the victim. That would be a reasonable notion until the story begins and it’s clear that Ophelia isn’t a story in the shadow of the #MeToo movement. Rather, Ophelia is a reinterpretation of events which, over and over through the centuries, continue to be told with little to no regard for the women who are at the center of Hamlet’s raging storm. Even if Ophelia is a creation of Lisa Klein, taken for nothing more than fan-fiction, it is still an incredibly moving, emotionally evocative journey which takes the play we know and fleshes it out to feel like a full story. If any story is but an opportunity to evoke emotion, to provoke the mind into believing that the extra-ordinary is real, then Ophelia is a success for no other reason than its ability to make us believe in hope and love over rage and regret.
In select theaters beginning June 28th, 2019.
Available on VOD beginning July 2nd, 2019.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.