Everyone knows Ophelia went mad when her father died, then committed suicide. What this re-imagination of Hamlet presupposes is: maybe she didn’t? Based on the Lisa Klein novel of the same name, Ophelia centers Shakespeare’s classic tragedy on the flower-loving maiden who fell for the depressed Danish prince. All the major Ophelia-centered moments from Hamlet will be found within this film. But each is given new context with deeper backstories for Ophelia and Queen Gertrude.
Ophelia begins years before the plot of Hamlet kicks off, when she was a spirited tomboy (Mia Quiney) a big mouth and a passion for books. When she speaks out of turn in front of the royal family, her widowed father Polonius (Dominic Mafham) is embarrassed. But Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) is impressed by Ophelia’s wit and daring. As her son Hamlet is being sent off to university, the queen’s Empty Nest Syndrome is soothed by inviting the motherless Ophelia into her entourage and under her wing. Years flash by in a montage, and Star Wars Daisy Ridley steps into play the grown, graceful, yet still rebellious Ophelia, who calls out catcallers, reads erotica, and finds solace and solitude by skinny dipping in a woodland pond. It’s there she’ll catch the eye of Hamlet (George MacKay), and their romance will blossom fast. But as he becomes obsessed with avenging his murdered father, Ophelia has her own reasons to fear the usurper king, Claudius (a surly Clive Owen).
Ophelia uncovers Claudius’s darkest secrets, not only that he poisoned his brother to snatch the queen and throne, but also the deceptions and betrayals he’d committed years before. This curious thread gives a fresh spin to the classic tale and places Ophelia at the heart of all the action. While Hamlet is spinning around in grief, madness, and theatricals, Ophelia is smartly strategizing an escape plan. The script plucks some inspiration from other Shakespearean plays, like Romeo and Juliet and MacBeth, yet it largely avoids the bard’s classic lines, clunkily paraphrasing them instead. (“Don’t borrow any money or lend it, and above all be true to yourself!”) Still, there’s a thrill in how Ophelia re-appropriates certain scenes. For instance, when Hamlet denounces Ophelia, both lovers know they are being watched. So the lines fudged from Shakespeare become performative for the eavesdropping Claudius, while whispered in between are the pair’s secret conversation.
Ever since I was a precocious tween who read Shakespeare for fun, I’ve loved a Hamlet in just about any form, be it Branagh’s, Slings and Arrows, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. As such, my inner lit nerd squeed throughout Ophelia, reveling in how director Clair McCarthy’s film plays with our expectations of its plot. However, the empowered reinterpretation of Ophelia is riddled with gauche “girl power” cliches that make the film feel less feminist, more nakedly pandering. Like of course Ophelia starts out as a tomboy. Being a girly girl might suggest she likes frivolous things like flowers and fashion! She’s not only smart, but the smartest one in any room, as well as the bravest and most beautiful! I hate to say this—because of how this word is often distorted to be used in misogynist attacks of female-focused genre works—but this Ophelia is a Mary Sue. She’s instantly good at everything, be it outwitting a plotting king, winning the heart of a dashing prince, or unfurling a decades-old mystery single-handed. She’s a power fantasy so garish that it leaves no room for character flaws, which misses the value of complexity in female representation. This makes Ophelia feel juvenile and gives Ridley little to play beyond steely self-assurance. Women need not be wholly extraordinary and devotedly good to be worth our attention or empathy. (Hamlet sure as hell wasn’t!) Without any flaws, it can be hard to connect to this headstrong heroine, as she is more abstraction than human.
By contrast, Gertrude is a beautiful mess of a woman. From her first sequence, McCarthy gives us insight into this oft-vilified Shakespeareans figure, offering relatable reasons to her seemingly outrageous behaviors. Gertrude is a mother, a wife, and a queen. But her identity in each is threatened over the course of the film. In her first scene, her darling son is leaving her behind. Later, her husband rejects her affections and conversation with scorn and violence. She is a mother without her child, a wife without a husband’s love, a queen without a king’s respect. And then there’s Claudius, with his roguish flirtations that make her feel seen, beautiful and desired. Gertrude is deeply flawed and makes a string of cringe-worthy choices. But with the added context of her struggle with identity, she seems less a horny fool or a callous villain and more painfully human. Watts brings an earthy ache—and a robust bit of scenery-chewing—to each of her scenes in this twisted tale. It’s just a shame Ophelia’s title character isn’t granted such riveting richness.
Ophelia screened at the Bentonville Film Festival in the Spotlight Film slate. A theatrical release will follow on June 28, courtesy of IFC Films.
Header Image Source: IFC Films