“McCarthy takes the liberty of expanding onto the story in order to bring it into the 21st century and give it a much needed female perspective.”
There’s a certain kind of magic that comes with watching a Shakespeare play performed on stage that doesn’t entirely translate in film adaptations. It seems to be difficult for them to remain memorable unless they tell the stories in a way that feels different and worthwhile, like the visually modernized but true to the text Romeo + Juliet (1996), directed by Baz Luhrmann. Another way for these adaptations to standout is to draw focus to a character that hasn’t received as much screen time in past films, such is the case with Ophelia (2019), a lush re-imagining of Hamlet directed by Claire McCarthy that delves further into the character of Ophelia and her role in the story.
The film opens on an ethereal shot of Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) floating in water, recreating the famous painting by Sir John Everett Millais, which depicts her death as it’s described in the original play. Ophelia speaks to the audience directly through voiceover, reminding us that we may think we know her story – because a version of it has been told many times before – but not from her perspective.
Although we are initially introduced to Ophelia as a child who is taken in by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) to be one of her trusted ladies-in-waiting, most of the film takes place in the months leading up to and during the events of Hamlet, when Ophelia is a young woman who finds herself mixed up in the drama and politics of the royal family. Unlike in previous adaptations of the play, her character is not exclusively resigned to being the love interest. Ophelia is intrigued by Hamlet (George MacKay), but she approaches her feelings for him realistically, with the awareness that she is not the “ideal” partner for him, given her social status. Their romance takes some time to develop, and in the meantime, we’re able to learn more about Ophelia and her aspirations as an individual. She expresses interest in education beyond what is expected of her, specifically in science and healing, and risks getting in trouble for spending time in the library where women are not permitted.
The film’s structure weaves the well-known plot points of Hamlet into the narrative while still allowing Ophelia to be the focus. By straying away from being a direct adaptation of the play, McCarthy takes the liberty of expanding onto the story in order to bring it into the 21st century and give it a much needed female perspective. With more insight into not only Ophelia, but Queen Gertrude and the added character of the witch, Mechtild (also portrayed by Naomi Watts), the film becomes more about women having agency over their own stories, and finding power over those who have wronged them.
One of the standout scenes of the film is when Ridley is able to let loose of her mostly controlled performance, and feign the “madness” that Ophelia is expected to succumb to after Hamlet’s betrayal (that ultimately led to her demise in the play). The context is altered so that it isn’t entirely about Hamlet, but rather, more about Ophelia protecting herself and those she cares about.
Ophelia is not going to be a satisfying film for everyone, especially Shakespeare purists. At times, the film leans into the more over-the-top aspects and campiness, and feels like a higher quality production of a CW show meant for teens. Though it may not hit every mark, it is still refreshing to see a story we’ve heard for hundreds of years be told in a way that feels new and worthwhile, imagining a life for Shakespearean women beyond the tragedies they are resigned to.
Director: Claire McCarthy
Producers: Daniel Bobker, Alastair Burlingham, Sarah Curtis, Elissa Friedman, Paul Hanson, Mathew Hart, Ehren Kruger, Anton Lessine, Bert Marcus, Gary Raskin, Sasha Shapiro
Cast: Daisy Ridley, George MacKay, Naomi Watts, Tom Felton, Clive Owen
Release Date: 2019 (wide)
Available On: On Demand and DVD