Shakespeare can be a very polarising subject, as we’ve been debating at length here among the Flixist staff. But if the long-winded passages just aren’t for you, and you don’t share the Brits’ appreciation for the Bard, then I have good news! Ophelia is a new invention of the classic tale, subverting the tropes of Hamlet and coming into its own as a historical drama to rival Mary Queen of Scots and The Favourite from last year. In fact, I’m more inclined to compare it to the work of Ang Lee, in its vibrant use of colour and inventive cinematography.
Some famous lines do make an appearance — but instead of being dropped heavily into the middle of the narrative they’re chanted like a chorus throughout the film, integrated into song through Steven Price’s spellbinding score. Simply put, the composition of this film is lyrical. The castle of Elsinore is brought to life with gorgeous cinematography and colours, and characters that feel at once real and immediate.
Director: Claire McCarthy
Release date: 28 June 2019 (US)
Ophelia feels like a high-stakes drama from the start, in which the entirety of the production team was invested: it’s not just a classic historical romp or a dry theatrical adaptation faking originality. Director Claire McCarthy, already with a slate of shorts and features to her name, has made her mark not only as a director of adaptations but as an artist in her own right.
We begin with an imagined backstory: the precocious young girl devotedly follows her older brother Larertes to school, where of course she’s forbidden. Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) takes a liking to her fearlessness and allows her to become one of her ladies in waiting, setting her story into motion.
It’s a glittering line-up for sure, but throughout the film I found it less of a star vehicle than an adaptation teetering on the edge of radical. To begin, I wasn’t sure whether Daisy Ridley would suit the character of this well-known wallflower. Yet she plays Ophelia well despite her very public persona and vivacity — perhaps the ‘Rey effect’ comes into its own, as she’s certainly regal, yet equally nymph-like and free-spirited. She surprises everyone with her knowledge and depth, in one scene economically expressing her passion for art through an analysis of a painting of Diana, goddess of the forest. It may be a clumsy allegory for her relationship with Hamlet, but it seems to work.
The character of Hamlet (George MacKay) is somewhat loosely translated to the screen. When we first see him, it’s as a rather measly 15 year old, taunted by his uncle Claudius (an oily Clive Owen) before leaving for Wittenberg university. A suggested few years pass, and he returns, infatuated with Ophelia. Their relationship is played out with more artistic license than the play might warrant, but it’s nevertheless nice to see the pair happy together before the inevitable drama overtakes Elsinore. One of Ophelia’s distinctions in the narrative is her ability to speak her mind — she’s usually portrayed as soft and unable to lie, but here she’s shown to be aware of the dangers surrounding her, from gossiping maids to treacherous courtiers, and seems to be able to fend for herself.
The score was one of my favourite parts of the film: compelling, forceful, unique. At times it made it feel like more of an Oriental setting, which added to the mythical quality of the film. Indeed, there were calls to a few famous pieces of artwork which made the film stand out as a piece of arthouse cinema. The opening sequence, an explicit allusion to the John William Waterhouse painting of Ophelia in the lake, immediately had my attention. I found the dance scene at court so vibrant and regal, that it also brings to mind something like Tennyson’s poem The Lady of Shallot — these old tales and folklore that suggest fiction and myth have become intertwined.
Classic characters make mandatory appearances, with much of the screen time devoted to the narrative between Gertrude and Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern warrant a mention, while Horatio (Devon Terrell) is squeezed out a little more than in the original text, becoming a loyal confidant not only to Hamlet but to Ophelia too. Laertes also gives his sister some advice, but she is strong enough to offer some of her own back. The famous speech from Polonius to Laertes is given but modernised: “Above all be true to yourself.” The message remains, even if the execution has slightly diluted the wording. In fact, given all this centred on the lives of those usually at the edges, I’d say Hamlet’s character is somewhat pushed to the fringes, though his mission of vengeance for his murdered father is a guiding force underpinning the action in Ophelia’s life.
One might say that the crux of the film lies within a really intriguing twist on the classic dialogue between Hamlet and Ophelia in Act 3 Scene 1, the scene where Hamlet famously spews all his misogyny and tells Ophelia to “get thee to a nunnery!” The tables have turned so that Ophelia is aware of a dark secret and the performances between Ridley and MacKay are very commendable. Subtext laces everything they say and I think it’s fantastic as the actors are able to weave this into their movements and actions, all the while watched by the wilful eye of Claudius. I’d love to have been present at the time of filming, because it feels as though the production team have had an extremely up-close and personal look at the characters, cross-examining their every word and motive.
Allusions to the political backdrop of the war with Norway make an appearance, as enemies advance on the castle. Scenes are framed with a fantastic landscape and there are a lot of nighttime shots which feel extra cinematic. While there’s some suggestion of what goes on outside the castle — Ophelia spends some time swimming through nearby lakes unaccompanied, or spending time with Hamlet — for the most part her life is contained within the solipsistic world of Elsinore, which seems more of a prison than a castle. Night-time visits to the ramparts are her main way of escaping the claustrophobic environment of the castle. Naturally there are crossovers with the opening scenes of the play and the presence of the departed king, but on the whole it’s handled in an original way.
A major player in the film, usually unexplored in adaptions or indeed the original play, is a witch whom Queen Gertrude uses for medicine. She plays an unexpectedly pivotal role, though I thought that with all the drama taking place it wasn’t necessary to have her play this significant a part. Perhaps the aim of the filmmaker was to counter the assumptions that a male-dominated narrative might offer, but I felt this tangential characterisation somewhat laboured the feminist drive and detracted from the already substantial drama.
For the third acts I almost forgot that I should be taking a critical approach to the film — I felt caught up in the action and wanted to be attentive to every detail. Twists were unexpected and though sometimes I doubted their veracity, it’s certainly a film I’d watch again and I feel as though it has more naturalistic acting than many historical dramas could offer. Also, one thing I’d never truly understood was the idea of the younger generations paying for the older generations’ mistakes, until seeing this depiction of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes towards the end. This is clearly a mark of Shakespeare’s work but it hadn’t occurred to me that it was relevant to the story of Hamlet in this way before. It’s the mark of an insightful director that they are able to tease out new messages from even the most well-known texts.
The ending wasn’t what I expected: after all, based on the novel by Lisa Klein, I felt as though it forced an agenda rather than stopping to take in the high tragedy of the events. But overall I thought it was a thoughtful adaptation, a creative take on the well-told story and to me there were elements that worked really well. I felt as though there could have been more of an arc, in that we didn’t see the original dramatic events from Hamlet’s side which meant it lost some of its momentum leading up to the climax. Of course, it made sense not to include these from Ophelia’s perspective, and even with some implausible twists, her story seemed compelling.
It’s rare that I sit through a film’s ending in its entirety, but during Ophelia I felt as if it were worth taking in the post-credits score and appreciating the atmosphere of the film. It may have had some oversights and didn’t end the way I might have expected, but in spite of these the film was visually striking with a compelling angle on Ophelia’s life that has proven McCarthy’s talent as a director.