|Original caricature by Jeff York of Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA.
People complained about modern dress productions of MACBETH in the ’60s, and Baz Luhrmann’s MTV-esque version of ROMEO & JULIET in the ’90s, so I’m sure there will be those with knives out for director Claire McCarthy’s revisionist OPHELIA. This modern take on HAMLET is told from his girlfriend’s POV, rather than the Danish prince, and that lens gives it a #MeToo modernity. After all, Ophelia could easily claim to be bullied by at least three men – her father Polonius, her king Claudius, and of course, that melancholy, on-again, off-again boyfriend of hers. This time out, she’s hardly a spoiled girl who goes mad and drowns in the nearby stream, but rather, a smart, young woman well aware of all the politics around her and determined not to get swallowed up by it.
Such revisionism of William Shakespeare’s most famous play could quickly be scoffed at, but here, director Claire McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas work Lisa Klein’s source material novel with a delicacy that pays respect to the Bard while illuminating the motives of his ingenue character. In fact, the filmmakers don’t actually stray too far from the plot of HAMLET. Quite the contrary, almost all of its significant beats are here. The highlights are just given slightly different shadings as we see all of the story’s machinations through Ophelia’s eyes. And in doing so, she manages to respond to them behind the scenes providing an endlessly fascinating counter-narrative to what’s going on in the kingdom.
Early in the story, it’s clear that Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) will be fighting an uphill battle in every aspect of her life. She’s a woman with limited privileges and a servant to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), one always reminded of her lowly station. Ophelia’s dad Polonius (Dominic Mafham) may be an advisor to the throne, but the best he can counsel his daughter with are instructions to stay out of the way and know her place. He also doesn’t like her flirtations with Gertrude’s son Hamlet (George MacKay). Making matters even worse, the rest of the ladies in waiting don’t think much of Ophelia’s earthiness and refusal to adhere to the expected ladylike manners.
Indeed, Ophelia is no shrinking violet. She often speaks her mind, and the girl stands up to the Queen when needed and cajoles her when she’s at her most self-pitying. Hamlet thinks she’s terrific too, but he’s too self-absorbed to treat her properly. And after his father dies, the prince becomes preoccupied with getting the stolen throne back from conniving uncle Claudius (Clive Owen). Ophelia sees and has opinions on all of this and tries to navigate the tricky politics as best she can. To do so, Ophelia becomes an expert listener. And what she hears could bring down the entire kingdom.
By being so close to the royals, she is within earshot of all sorts of gossip, secrets, and skullduggery. No flighty girl worrying about parties or dresses, Ophelia watches for the right opportunities to share her knowledge and make things right. She’s on the side of righteousness and uses what she knows to help Hamlet, her father, Laertes (Tom Felton), and Horatio (Devon Terrell) too. She’ll keep her head, thank you very much, and help others keep theirs as well.
If this were wholly modern-day, Ophelia might be cast as a reporter or an office secretary using her inside tracks to scurry up the food chain, but this is Medieval Denmark, and she’s stuck in a brutal caste system. The best she can do is stay above the fray and the ground, and that’s what motivates her. Ophelia would love to be happy and marry, but she’ll be damned if the girl’s going to sell her soul to be some unbearable nobleman’s wife. She pines for Hamlet but knows that he’s in no position to devote himself to her, so she devotes herself to thine own self be true.
Ridley does wonders in the role, moving infinitesimally through a scene, with a mere blink or a slight eyebrow raise that speaks volumes. It’s subtle, clever work, showcasing a strong heroine that no one realizes holds most of the cards. She should be in contention on awards shortlists by the end of the year.
Watts is terrific too in a dual role as Gertrude and a witch in the woods. The reason as to why Watts is playing both roles is cleverly revealed in the third act, but you’ll likely figure it out by the end of the first. MacCay makes for a young and appropriately callow prince, unlike so many who were too old and knowing in the role. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Mel Gibson.) And Owen is quickly becoming the best English screen villain since Alan Rickman passed, and the way he holds as stare is deliciously despicable.
This film has strengths across the board, starting with Chellas’ sly script that manages to honor both of the film’s source material. She cleverly paraphrases much of the Bard, updating it just enough to make it sound accessible. And her writing gives many tart lines to various characters. My favorites? I love it when Watts’ witch tells the impatient Ophelia, “You’re a lady in waiting…learn to wait.” Equally affecting is when Ophelia remarks to Hamlet putting her down for being a woman, “Frailty in love is not governed by sex…perhaps it runs in families.”
The costumes and production design are equal to that in the recent MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS, and Steven Price’s haunting score is one of the year’s best so far. McCarthy wisely never over-directs any bit, even when the material vamps on the familiar tropes of HAMLET. Instead, she saves her more artistic flourishes for the visuals. She makes a lot of hay out of water imagery, from bathing to sweat on a brow to babbling brooks. It nicely foreshadows Ophelia’s end, but here, it’s not quite what you’d expect.
I also love the way McCarthy shot the scene where the troupe plays out its drama for the court, showing the influence of Hamlet’s vengeful narrative. As the King is killed, the actions play out behind a scrim curtain in silhouette – – all the better to make things very black and white. Nicely played, Hamlet and Ms. McCarthy.
Some will be galled by Ophelia’s turning of the tables at the end, but it fits the trend to rewrite such tales as old as time. This OPHELIA has a lot in common with the Broadway show WICKED (based on Gregory Maguire’s bestseller) and a more feminist approach to sexist material. If you can accept such updating, you’ll love and applaud this OPHELIA. There are all kinds of pure takes out there, but this one attempts something new and succeeds, raising the Bard for other revisionist versions.