The neo-Shakespeare movie Ophelia is an audacious stunt. The novelist Lisa Klein began with the character who might have the least agency in any great drama (arguably the greatest of all dramas). In Hamlet, Ophelia is bullied and bounced around by three men: her prissy father, Polonius; the bloat King Claudius; and her boyfriend, the Danish prince himself. With her father skewered and boyfriend (his killer) decamped for England, she delivers a famously lyrical mad scene and promptly drowns. Millais immortalized her floating corpse in a famous painting that inspired Olivier’s final shot of her in his Hamlet. And wouldn’t you know that the movie Ophelia begins with a reproduction of that shot — except that Ophelia is played by the first female Jedi and, in voice-over, says to forget what we know. She’ll tell her own story, thank you very much.
This is the ultimate female take-back-the-narrative movie, and frankly a lot of it is silly and sophomoric. But it’s also juicy and fun and was a crowd-pleaser at the Sundance Film Festival premiere — it got the most sustained applause of any movie I saw.
The screenwriter Semi Chellas and director Claire McCarthy play a kind of footsie with Hamlet. In every instance in which Shakespeare’s Ophelia is helpless and indecisive, McCarthy and Chellas give us a young woman (Daisy Ridley) who knows her own mind better than Hamlet knows his. When this Ophelia is ordered to pry info from Hamlet (George MacKay) while Claudius (Clive Owen) and Polonius hide behind a balustrade, our heroine declaims variations of the lines we know while whispering to Hamlet that he’s being watched. His command to go to a nunnery is for her protection, given the regicide he’s planning. Of course Ophelia stays. Danger is her middle name.
Chellas doesn’t borrow lines from Shakespeare, as in the wittiest of all theatrical stunts, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. But she has concocted some respectable poetic banter — Shakespeare Lite. And sometimes she’s downright cheeky. You get Polonius (Dominic Mafham) telling Laertes (Tom Felton), “Don’t borrow any money or lend it, and above all be true to yourself.” Later, Hamlet takes Ophelia to bed, after which this: “Call me by my name.” “Hamlet.” “Ophelia.” It ain’t the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, but its mundanity is part of the joke. This Hamlet is very smart and utterly ineffectual. He cocks things up. Ophelia is taken aback when he complains that his mother is “like all women — fickle, frail.” Not all women, you Danish prat.
The female gaze is strong in this one. Tasked to read to Gertrude (Naomi Watts) at bedtime, Ophelia discovers that her text isn’t religious but medieval soft-core porn. She and Gertrude have a good giggle. It seems that Hamlet’s father, Hamlet Sr., isn’t a tiger in the sack. Why shouldn’t Gertrude and Claudius have a fling? It’s not as if she thought he’d turn around and poison his own brother! (Really, though, she should have expected it. Owen’s Claudius with his lank black locks is halfway to Richard III.)
Ridley makes a fine, modern heroine, but Watts goes big and waltzes away with the movie. She has two roles: Gertrude and Gertrude’s hitherto unknown twin sister, a witch. At junctures, Ophelia descends to the witch’s subterranean lair to obtain “potions” for her Queen. Yes, the witch — a bitter hellion — appears to be helping turn her sister into a medieval cokehead. Watts’s Gertrude, meanwhile, argues so openly with herself that Hamlet’s remonstrations are superfluous. Her rages become so huge that Steven Price’s music has to compete mighty hard with her. It’s a nutty, bombastic score, but anything more modest would have gotten lost in the histrionics.
To be pedantic, Shakespeare didn’t invent the story of Hamlet, and some scholars (notably Harold Bloom) think the text we know today was a rewrite of an earlier Shakespeare revenge melodrama, an “Ur-Hamlet.” No masterpiece is set in stone: Let’s hear it for bold literary fiddle-di-dees. In the climactic duel, McCarthy lays on the slow motion rather thickly, but by that point Gertrude and Gertrude’s sister (who’s like something out of Les Misérables — Liberty at the battlements) have wrested control from kings, princes, and immortal bards. It’s nothing less than a declaration of war.