Ophelia Review: Retelling the Hamlet Story from a Female Lens

Ophelia Daisy Ridley in "Ophelia." (IFC Films)

Frailty, thy name definitely ain’t “woman” in this feminist retelling of Hamlet. 

It’s nigh impossible to overestimate Shakespeare’s importance to Western literature. The Bard’s poetic and storytelling genius is so alluring that it keeps artists of all kinds revisiting his oeuvre again and again for inspiration. However, while his ability to elevate the English language is timeless, his gender politics were all too much of his era. As such, many retellings of his plays often find themselves reimagining any of his characters that aren’t male, white and Christian. The latest such adaptation is Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, a retelling of Hamlet that shifts the focus to the Danish Prince’s love interest. 

Based on both Hamlet and the novel of the same name by Lisa Klein, Ophelia’s plot runs adjacent to the play. The movie starts with briefly showing the child Ophelia meeting Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts, The Book of Henry), who takes her in to be a lady-in-waiting. After a quick montage of the wild child learning to be a lady, we are introduced to the adult Ophelia (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Last Jedi).  Despite having the Queen’s favor, Ophelia is ostracized by the other ladies due to her lack of nobility and her tendency to prefer nature to life in court. While these qualities make her an outcast, it catches the eye of Gertrude’s son, Hamlet (George MacKay, Where Hands Touch). 

Hamlet and Ophelia have an instant connection, with Hamlet appreciating Ophelia’s independence and Ophelia appreciating Hamlet’s sensitivity. While the pair become closer, Ophelia notices that Gertrude is also becoming close to Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius (Clive Owen, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). When the king of Denmark is killed, Ophelia must help Hamlet solve the mystery, all while dealing with the fickle nature of the Danish court. 

It’s not necessary to be familiar with Hamlet to understand the plot of Ophelia; the movie is it’s own story and puts more focus on the heroine surviving court intrigue more than bringing Claudius to justice. That said, certain elements will seem out of nowhere to those unfamiliar with the play. Most noticeably the dramatization of the king’s death that Hamlet uses to lure Claudius into confessing his crime. The play isn’t given any build-up, and MacCarthy expects the audience to know it’s coming. For many retellings, this assumption of prior knowledge would be annoying, but the ubiquity of Shakespeare makes it easy to gloss over the better-known aspects of the play. 

What the movie shouldn’t have glossed over were all the subplots. Ophelia needs to juggle a murder mystery, a romance, court drama, and family relationships. None are given much time to develop, making the romance seem rushed, the court drama is nothing more than catfights, and the family relationships are barely given any attention. At a little over one hundred minutes, Ophelia is a bit too short to devote enough attention to any of its plot points. It’s a shame that the project wasn’t developed as a miniseries, as that format would have let the characters truly show the complexities of their relationships. 

It’s not necessary to be familiar with “Hamlet” to understand the plot of Ophelia; the movie is it’s own story.

The classic depiction of Ophelia is one of a frail madwoman lacking in agency, helpless to her own distress. Ridley rejects this outright, playing her with dignity and a sense of rebellion. MacKay’s Hamlet is also a bit of a departure from traditional portrayals of Hamlet, as he is more decisive and forthright, unafraid to spring into action (granted, we don’t see his more pensive soliloquies). Queen Gertrude is also given more complexity, with Watts giving her strength and affection, going against the more negative portrayals of the past. The only lesser performance belongs to Owen’s Claudius, whose lack of charm or deviousness makes him a bland villain. 

Despite Owen’s by-the-numbers performance, the relationship between Claudius and Gertrude is the most interesting aspect of the film. While Claudius makes his desire for Gertrude (or at least her title) known by forcing a kiss on her and showing obvious attempts of affection, Gertrude is somewhat reticent. While her relationship with the king is shown as an unhappy one, there are hints that her relationship with Claudius once he is king is also unhappy, and it’s never made clear that she collaborates in committing regicide. This, as well as her devotion to Hamlet, is juxtaposed with her fickle relationship towards her ladies, gives her more complexity and depth that the title character, sadly, lacks. 

This is because, while Ridley’s performance is commendable, the film treats her as a typical “not like the other girls” tomboy. She’s not noble, she reads, she likes being outdoors, she can’t dance, and all these things are constantly remarked upon by the ladies-in-waiting. It’s stuff we’ve all seen before, and it hurts the ostensible feminist messaging of the film. The competitive court setting could have been used to make a statement about how a society that treats women as objects can cause them to fail each other, but the “mean girl” attitude of the other ladies makes this adult drama feel like high school. 

Where Ophelia really shines is its gorgeous visual presentation — the sets and costumes are sumptuous, and the scene compositions (shot by Denson Baker) are quite intriguing. For Hamlet’s play, the action is pantomimed behind a backlit curtain, evoking shadow puppets. The modern feeling of the play is anachronistic but very cool. Even the more conventional shots are gorgeous due to the scenery, be it lush forests, scenic courtyards, or a gothic bone-covered ossuary. 

The best Shakespeare retellings make us see the classic in a new light, the worst just feel pointless. Ophelia isn’t pointless — it’s definitely telling its own story — but it doesn’t reinvent how we see the character. Perhaps this is because there is room for ambiguity for Ophelia in the original story. Despite her apparent madness, Ophelia’s final monologue reveals that she might see the truth behind the other characters’ deceit, but it’s never made clear. This film removes the nuance, and while there’s an audience for this clear cut characterization, it’s doubtful that this version will supplant the original any time soon.  

Ophelia gets thee to a nunnery (and to the Gene Siskel Film Center for a limited engagement) July 5.

Ophelia Trailer:

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