Most are familiar with the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The story of the moody Danish prince has been remade more times than can be counted. The story of Hamlet is once again being retold for the screen in one of 2018’s most hotly anticipated films. However, the latest version, Ophelia, instead spotlights the story’s traditionally doomed heroine.
Ophelia stars Daisy Ridley, fresh from her success in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Backing up Ridley are fan favorites Tom Felton, Naomi Watts (in dual roles), Clive Owen and George MacKay. The film comes from director Claire McCarthy from a script written by Semi Chellas. The script is based on a book by Lisa Klein.
The film quickly delves into unexplored territory, introducing audiences to a young Ophelia (Ridley). We see Ophelia quickly recruited to be a lady in waiting for Queen Gertrude (Watts) while still a wilful child. She grows up in the role, experiencing all the usual growing pains from bullying to the pangs of first love. The change in narrative structure is an interesting one, as it forces some development in characters who tend to be ignored in other retellings. Two of the most affected by this change are our female leads, Ophelia and Gertrude.
Probably most striking in the film is the casting of Daisy Ridley as Ophelia. While Ridley is still very much a newcomer to the screen, she’s already falling into her star persona. Ridley’s Ophelia is incredibly young. However, she’s smart, independent and highly observant. She’s curious. She asks questions. She reads books (gasp!). Previous versions of the story largely ignore these aspects of her character. In fact, Ophelia’s relationship to the male characters around her traditionally defines her identity. She’s Polonious’ daughter, Hamlet’s love interest and Laertes’ sister. That’s it. This version changes all that. Suddenly, Ophelia has her own voice. Hamlet doesn’t dictate her story. Furthermore, Ridley absolutely shines in this role, seeming to relish giving a voice to one of Shakespeare’s most trod on characters.
The changes to the story structure also allows interesting development for Gertrude. In the play, the Queen remains largely unexplored, even though her decision to marry Claudius (Owen) is fuel to the play’s narrative fire. Watts’ portrays Gertrude as a complicated woman. In fact, it’s almost difficult to get a read on the character. She’s a passionate and highly sexual woman. She wears her feelings on her sleeve, no matter how fluctuating they may be. Suddenly she feels more like a real woman, and less a maternal vessel.
Gertrude however, feels like one of the film’s largest opportunities. While they do some interesting development with the character, certain changes to the narrative (no spoilers!) definitely complicate her story. Watching the film, I wanted still more insight into her character. This revolves particularly around her relationship with Claudius. While certain questions must be left open in order keep the film coming from Ophelia’s perspective, it would have been nice to see more hints of Gertrude’s feelings as her family life spirals out of control around her.
The film also makes an interesting use of George MacKay as Hamlet. The young actor brings a different take to the iconic character. Previous portrayals of Hamlet (Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Benedict Cumberbatch and Laurence Olivier) largely portray the Prince as a man. MacKay’s performance is a fascinating one as it highlights elements of Hamlet’s youth. After all, he’s still in school. He’s a young man who finds himself in a very complicated family situation. MacKay emphasizes the erratic nature of youth on Hamlet’s behavior. He is rash and impulsive. He brings a very real hint of how helpless Hamlet actually is, which is largely ignored in other versions of the story.
Equally interesting is the film’s use of natural imagery in the telling of the story. Probably most notable is Ophelia’s multiple swimming scenes. In this film, there are a number of instances where we see Ophelia under the water. For once, we see the world from her perspective. This stands out once again when looking at this story against other versions of Hamlet. In these stories, Ophelia is always seen from above the water, often dwarfed by her surroundings. McCarthy shows an astute eye in making this particular change, and it gives the film even more depth.
The film doesn’t feel as heavy or oppressive as some of Shakespeare’s work often can. This breaks down in one of two ways. Are you a Shakespeare purist? There are various line changes and variances in language which might bother those with an astute ear for the Bard. At the same time, the film also feels more accessible without the reliance heavy and dense Shakespearean language. This is purely audience preference.
In Ophelia, director Claire McCarthy and her creative team crafted a fascinatingly new take on an age-old story. Fans of Daisy Ridley should definitely keep an eye out for this movie, as the actress puts forward an impressive performance. Ditto for fans of George MacKay. However, this story holds a tremendous appeal as a feminist retelling of Hamlet. McCarthy’s work combines with fascinating performances to tell a version of Hamlet we’ve never seen before. If this sounds interesting, definitely add Ophelia to your viewing list.
Ophelia is currently playing at the Sundance Film Festival. Come back to GGA as more release information becomes known.