Much analyzed and, according to many, much misunderstood, Ophelia has always been one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters. With Ophelia, director Claire McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas aim to demystify Hamlet’s lady love, turning her into a smart, fully fleshed-out woman with spirit and agency.
Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) comes to court to serve Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). The young lady in waiting is common-born, but she’s clever and resourceful and ultimately finds favor with the temperamental queen — and gains the attention of Gertrude’s son, Prince Hamlet (George MacKay). As Gertrude and her own lover, Claudius (Clive Owen), execute their plot to poison the king and take control of Denmark, Ophelia learns more about what’s going on than is healthy for her. Desperate to save the prince she loves — and stay alive — she goes to great lengths to evade those who wish her harm, ultimately feigning madness and even suicide.
Ophelia does a very satisfying job of filling in the (many) blanks The Bard left in Hamlet when it comes to this infamous character. Actions and lines that seemed to come out of left field in the play now have clear explanations. Rather than a victim driven over the edge by cruelty, this Ophelia is proactive and strategic, making specific choices for good reasons. Plus, by staying with Ophelia as the tragic story’s more familiar events unfold around her, the film gives viewers greater insight into other unseen aspects of the play, too — including the duplicitous Gertrude’s motivations and temperament, which were also largely unexplored in Hamlet.
Ridley and Watts both deliver fierce performances; Ophelia and Gertrude may disagree over the former’s suitability as a match for Denmark’s crown prince, but they also form a complex connection and, perhaps grudgingly, respect each other. As Hamlet nurses his outrage and yearns for revenge, the women who love him are making plans and getting things done. And in that they end up fulfilling Shakespeare’s own words: “If we are true to ourselves, we can not be false to anyone.” — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Marilyn Ferdinand: The genius of William Shakespeare has been a bottomless well of inspiration for creators down through the ages—flexible enough to absorb all manner of revision, from modern dress to modern English, and timeless enough to speak to successive generations with the common language of the human heart. Novelist Lisa Klein published Ophelia, her revisionist take on Hamlet in 2006, and now director Claire McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas have brought her vision to the screen. Read full review.
Pam Grady: With Star Wars’ Rey, Daisy Ridley, in the lead, it should come as no surprise that Hamlet’s love Ophelia is no sad mad woman in Claire McCarthy’s riveting adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel. Mad Man writer Semi Chellas wrote the script and there is a lot of Peggy Olsen spunk—medieval style—in Ophelia, a woman who comes to be a thorn in the side of fraternal murderer and kingdom usurper Claudius (Clive Owen, convincingly vile). In this version of Shakespeare’s tale, when Hamlet (George MacKay) tells Ophelia to retreat to a nunnery, he is only trying to protect the woman he loves, having not yet realized that she is smarter, wilier, and tougher than the men of the court. The Bard’s great tragedy is transformed into a rip-roaring feminist fable wherein the low-born Ophelia rises first to lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts, who is all in in portraying the royal as a vain woman whose fear of aging provides a catalyst to Claudius’ designs on both his brother’s wife and his throne) and then to Hamlet’s beloved and the one person in the kingdom with the gumption to stand her ground with the entire court against her. Ophelia is a handsome, entrancing production that soars on Ridley’s gritty yet luminous performance.
Leslie Combemale It isn’t easy to bring a wholly new, fresh perspective to one of the most seen, and darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies. In the play, the unfolding of Ophelia’s story has always been beyond secondary, and only serves as a frame in building Hamlet’s arc. Still, she is one of the most haunting, compelling characters in Shakespeare’s catalog. Director Clare McCarthy’s new film Ophelia, from the screenplay by Semi Chellas, is based on author Lisa Klein’s novel that reimagines Ophelia’s role at Elsinore Castle, and how, beyond going mad, she fits into the machinations that ultimately led to the story’s famous blood-soaked ending. Beautifully shot and well-composed, it is a fascinating alternate take on Hamlet that places women at the story’s center. Though you’ll recognize it borrows more than a little from another of his famous tragedies, it also offers plot points that suggest toxic masculinity has been man’s undoing throughout history, to the detriment of all women around them. Ophelia makes a strong case that women having their own agency is the only way for them to avoid becoming collateral damage in the wars men wage. Daisy Ridley impresses in the title role, as does Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude. At one point, Ophelia says, “Survival isn’t enough”. This film argues women being relegated to secondary character, both in life and in film, is also no longer enough.
MaryAnn Johanson I am onboard with the idea that Hamlet is the greatest play ever written in the English language, but it’s hardly controversial to say that its female characters really get the short shrift. So I am also onboard with this feminist redemption of Ophelia, who finally has some agency within the story and some power of her own. Is Ophelia a bit fan-fiction-y? Sure. Is it a big YA? I’m okay with that. Ophelia may be the original teen-girl character, and if teen girls today can see her as a heroine in this, that’s a good thing. As a former teen girl myself, I know I’d have *loved* to see something like this after studying Hamlet at school. As a grownup Shakespeare geek, I’d like to hop in a time machine, travel back to meet the playwright, and sit him down and show him this, if only to give him a clue about how he wronged her.
Nikki Baughan: Australian director Claire McCarthy breathes vigorous new life into the work of England’s most famous Bard in her reframing of Hamlet, in a film which is based on the 2006 YA novel by Lisa Klein. In retelling this famous tragedy from the perspective of Ophelia, Hamlet’s love interest who drowns herself in the play, McCarthy has created a piece of work which remains true to the essence of Shakespeare, but makes it accessible to today’s young audiences.
“It’s high time I should tell you my story myself,” says Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia at the film’s outset, and it’s great to see the character finally given her own agency. Neither archaic nor too knowingly-modern, she is a level-headed, outspoken girl with the tenacity and confidence to remain one step in front of the political furor swirling around her at court. Ridley is excellent in the role, and is expertly supported by a cast including Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude (and, in a near narrative quirk, the woodland crone Mechtild), Tom Felton as Laertes, Clive Owen as Claudius and George MacKay as Hamlet. But this story belongs squarely to Ophelia, and it’s a pleasure to see her take centre stage after spending so long in the wings.
Nell Minow: Just as that play catches the conscience of the king, the richness of Shakespeare’s original provides the basis for a vividly imagined adjunct that provides additional insight into the classic and to our own ability to use art to illuminate the modern world as well.
Jennifer Merin Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia is a fascinating feminist revisioning of Hamlet. Scripted by Semi Chellas, based on a book by Lisa Klein, the film brings to the forefront a character who was pivotal but secondary in Shakespeare’s telling of the tale, contextualizing the tragedy in much the same way that Tom Stoppard did in refocusing on Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Daisy Ridley is a stunning Ophelia, sparring smartly with Naomi Watts’ extraordinary personification of Gertrude, making palpable the court intrigue and women’s living conditions within it. The cinematography is exquisite, as are all elements of the film’s fully realized period design. It’s a treat to see male-centric Hamlet have a #MeToo moment not by casting a female to play the title character, or reimagining the title character as female, but by approached the famous tale from a female character’s point of view. Especially because the film is so beautifully realized.
Loren King Reexamining classic texts from a different perspective, particularly minor or neglected characters, is an enticing idea fraught with possibility and peril. Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead looked past Hamlet to the bit players. But what about Shakespeare’s women? Kudos to director Claire McCarthy and to Semi Chellas who adapted Lisa Klein’s young adult novel, for having the imagination and guts to take one of Hamlet’s most under-explored characters, the tragic Ophelia, and put her center stage. Read full review.
Marina Antunes Women rarely fare well in classic literature; they’re often central to the storytelling but not at the centre of it. Lisa Klein’s novel and now director Claire McCarthy’s adaptation of said novel takes a stab at righting that wrong. Daisy Ridley may be best known for her “instant success” as Rey in the new Star Wars films but in Ophelia, she returns to her classical training and flexes her acting muscle in the titular role of Ophelia in a story which re-tells the tale of Hamlet with a focus on Ophelia and her part in the proceedings. This new interpretation brings some interesting ideas to the story, most notably highlighting the differences in how men and women deal with grief, violence and vengeance, ideas which are wonderfully embodied by Ridley who is very good in the role, and also by Naomi Watts who makes a lasting impression in not one but two supporting roles. Accompanied by beautiful cinematography from Denson Baker and a lovely score from Steven Price, Ophelia is an optimistic new take on a familiar story of tragedy.
Sheila Roberts Like the classic tale, this thrilling reinterpretation explores themes of love, romance, melancholy, loss, madness, treachery and revenge set against a terrifying backdrop of court intrigue involving powerful, competing forces. The headstrong Ophelia, groomed at an early age to serve as one of Queen Gertrude’s trusted ladies-in-waiting at Elsinore Castle, must learn how to cope with the jealous machinations of her co-workers as well as the affections of a passionate young prince destined to ascend the throne. Read full review.
Susan Wloszczyna: Back when I was a young lass, I saw a film that made me desperately wanting to be a college English major – Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuous and youthful version of Romeo and Juliet starring the age-appropriate and gorgeous Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting. The Italian director kept most of the Bard’s dialogue and didn’t stray too much from the original tragedy save for heightening the adolescent sexual-tension quota. Now along comes Aussie director Claire McCarthy with a visually pleasurable re-interpretation of Hamlet as a Gothic romance that puts the main female characters, Hamlet’s lady love Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) and his mum, Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), front and center. Both actresses work overtime to breathe fresh feminist life into these Shakespearan figures in Ophelia, which is based on a young adult novel by Lisa Klein. But while I admire the effort to give the play a #MeToo upgrade, this overtly serious enterprise seems to be pandering to the Twilight generation with slow-motion sword fights while purloining bits from Macbeth (Watts has a secondary role as a witch/healer) and Romeo and Juliet. I flinched when Hamlet says, “Go to a nunnery” and Polonius advises, “You cannot hide your true self.” Why trash the iconic lines with dull substitutes? Alas, the last straw for me is that Ridley and George MacKay as the Danish prince have almost zero chemistry. To see or not to see — it is up to you.
Liz Whittemore The retelling of Hamlet through the experiences of Ophelia gives the tragic character more substance and power than ever before. With added intrigue and entirely new narrative surprises, this beautifully lush film entices the audience from beginning to end. Ridley and Watts light up the proverbial stage with an electric chemistry that Shakespeare could have only dreamed of.
Cate Marquis Ophelia is one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable female characters but also one of his most mysterious. In director Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) tells her version of the events in Hamlet, a bit in the manner of Tom Stoddard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. “It is high time I shall tell you my story myself,” she says in voice-over near the film’s start, re-framing the story from her viewpoint. Unlike Hamlet‘s timid Ophelia, driven mad as she pushed this way and that by the men around her – her father, her brother, the melancholy prince – this Ophelia is bolder and more independent in this femme-centric re-imagining. The film begins long before Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with Ophelia’s childhood, when the motherless girl is taken under the wing of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Also starring Clive Owen, Tom Felton, and George MacKay as Hamlet, the film delves into behind-the-scenes events of Shakespeare’s tragedy and puts a new spin on familiar ones. The script, which screenwriter Semi Chellas adapted from Lisa Klein’s young adult novel, has a lot of Romeo and Juliet in it and not everything in the film works, but Daisy Ridley is terrific, sets and costumes are beautiful, plus just the idea of the mysterious Ophelia telling her own version is irresistible.
Directors: Claire McCarthy
Release Date: June 28, 2019
Running Time: 107 minutes
Screenwriter: Semi Chellis
Distribution Company: IFC Films
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Marina Antunes, Nikki Baughan, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, MaryAnn Johanson, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sheila Roberts, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin