There are women throughout history whose names are synonymous with tragedy and destruction: Helen of Troy, Eve, Pandora, Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The princess of suicide, sadness, and melancholy, Ophelia has been immortalized in works of arts, numerous books, and modern day film adaptations of Hamlet, but no medium has truly sought to examine the woman herself. Daisy Ridley’s Ophelia starts Claire McCarthey’s feature of the same name with this caveat. The story is known and the legacy is defined, but maybe it’s time to reanalyze. Where there have been numerous attempts to tell Hamlet from a different perspective McCarthey and screenwriter Semi Chellas go above and beyond, crafting a true feminist interpretation of Ophelia that provokes your thoughts.
Unlike other features that claim to be from a female perspective, there isn’t a moment within Ophelia where the title character, or a woman for that matter, isn’t on-the screen. Ophelia is introduced as an inquisitive child, barred from the castle library because she isn’t a boy. Through her gumption she catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who finds herself charmed by Ophelia’s wit; the little girl believes the apple in the Adam and Eve storyline was blameless, a sign of things to come. Ophelia grows into the enchantingly elven Daisy Ridley (in an unfortunate wig) and soon finds herself bound up in the story that Shakespeare would create, turning Ophelia into the ultimate heroine of misfortune.
Accompanied by Chellas’ beautifully written script, Ophelia takes the well-tread work of Shakespeare and recontextualizes it both for a modern audience but one that’s more progressive towards women in general. Specific scenes from Hamlet are presented, such as the “neither a borrower nor a lender be” and the “get thee to a nunnery” moment, but always have an aim towards showing Ophelia’s response. Ironically, these moments tend to be the ones Shakespeare presented as very male-centric. The nunnery scene puts Ophelia in the key position of knowing far more information than Hamlet (George MacKay) does, while the ordinarily presented saucy moments during “The Mousetrap” sequence take on a different tone considering the machinations of the plot itself. The hat must go off to Chellas, who clearly knew Hamlet well enough to provide reinterpretation, and McCarthey for having the actors give off completely different tones to scenes that are so commonly presented.
Daisy Ridley’s performance is wondrous, playing the character not as the doe-eyed babe in the woods. A character tells her that she’s a lady-in-waiting and thus must “learn to wait,” not just on the Queen but for a husband, for children, for her life to be planned without her input or consent. Ridley’s all searching eyes, whether it’s taking in the potions of the local witch in the woods or gazing upon MacKay’s Hamlet. She isn’t a giddy schoolgirl, but a woman with interests and desires, who understands more acutely than most what her role is supposed to be, both within the confines of the film and, almost with a meta-awareness, within Shakespeare’s mind. Ophelia is a woman who doesn’t fit in, either with her family or even the other ladies-in waiting. She “dances like a goat,” enjoys spending time outdoors, and reads. Yet the film litters her with supporting characters who hide their hidden talents just as much as she does.
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As Queen Gertrude, another character often perceived to be a pawn in a game of men, Naomi Watts plays the role with a regal bearing and quiet grace. Gertrude understands the cards she’s been dealt in her marriage, yet has desires of her own. When Ophelia reads to her from a saucy novel the two women are able to bond through their secrets, not just the fact that they’re sexual beings, but that Ophelia can read and Gertrude doesn’t spend her evenings reading devotionals. There is a fairly soapy plot contrivance where Watts’ character is concerned, but if it means creating more roles for women I’m for it! The fact that the climax is heavily rewritten to give all the central women additional agency is rousing and might actually leave you saddened that Hamlet actually doesn’t include so many women badasses.
With so many active women dominating the frame it’s easy to forget Ophelia is a love story as well. Ridley and MacKay have chemistry together, though Ridley makes a point of having her face register Ophelia’s doubt. Their interactions never seem to border above flirtation until they’re required to be together. MacKay himself is good, but this isn’t Hamlet’s story so it’s understandable that he’s pretty basic, and still a selfish jerk; he openly tells his mother she looks old, even as Ophelia tries to hype the Queen up and give her placement as high as the King’s. Clive Owen plays Claudius and he’s little more than a brutish example of toxic masculinity, and it’s intriguing how that open aggression is placed alongside Hamlet’s. Hamlet, the play, is usually positioned as a story of hubris, and while that’s here Chellas also infuses it with the idea that toxic men might not be made but born. Hamlet promises Ophelia that he’s not interested in ruling, but once he discovers his crown has been “stolen,” he becomes hellbent on asserting his machismo to get it back.
Ophelia is sure to inspire numerous thinkpieces, and it should. Claire McCarthy and Semi Chellas create something truly special. Daisy Ridley is a powerhouse, taking Rey’s grit and ingenuity and bringing it to a character people believe they know.
Ophelia is in theaters starting June 28th and on VOD July 3rd.