Ophelia is the ultimate female take-back-the-narrative movie. The novelist Lisa Klein, and now the screenwriter Semi Chellas and director Claire McCarthy, have taken the character with arguably the least agency of any in classical theater and given her control over her own destiny — to the point where they have to twist the source, Hamlet, into the kinds of knots you’d find in silly heist movies. Ophelia is pretty silly, too, but give its makers points for chutzpah.
To refresh your memory: In Hamlet, the teenage Ophelia is bullied and bounced around by three men: her priss-pot father, Polonius; the bloated King Claudius; and her boyfriend, the Danish prince himself. With her father inadvertently skewered and her boyfriend (her father’s killer) en route to England, Ophelia wanders into the court having plainly lost her marbles, does a mad scene for the ages, and goes off and throws herself into a stream. John Everett Millais immortalized her floating corpse in a famous painting that inspired Laurence Olivier’s final shot of her in his Oscar-winning film adaptation of Hamlet. Ophelia actually begins with another reproduction of Millais’s painting — except that now Ophelia, played by the first female Jedi, says in voice-over, “It’s high time I should tell you my story myself.” Take that, you Stratford prat.
Ophelia goes on to play a kind of footsie with Hamlet. In every instance in which Shakespeare’s character 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 Shakespeare’s lines while whispering to Hamlet that he’s being watched. Hamlet’s command that she go to a nunnery is now for her protection, given that he’s about to commit regicide. Ophelia stays, of course. Danger is her middle name.
Chellas doesn’t borrow lines from Shakespeare, as in the wittiest of all Shakespearean stunts, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; she revises and repurposes them. But she has concocted some respectable poetic banter — Shakespeare Lite. And sometimes she goes in the opposite direction, making the characters’ plain–spokenness downright cheeky. Polonius (Dominic Mafham) tells Laertes (Tom Felton), “Don’t borrow any money or lend it, and above all be true to yourself.” Ouch. Later, Hamlet and Ophelia have a bit of romantic dialogue: “Call me by my name.” “Hamlet.” “Ophelia.” It ain’t the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, but the mundanity is the joke. This Hamlet is self-consciously poetic and utterly ineffectual. He regularly cocks things up while complaining that his mother is “like all women — fickle, frail.” Ophelia registers this with dismay. 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 the queen’s 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 exactly a tiger in the sack, so 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 it’s Watts who goes big and waltzes away with the movie. She actually plays two roles: Gertrude and Gertrude’s hitherto unknown twin sister, a witch. At various junctures, Ophelia descends to the witch’s subterranean lair to obtain stimulating “potions” for her queen. It seems that this bitter hellion is trying to turn her royal sister into a medieval cokehead. As Gertrude, Watts flies into rages so towering that Steven Price’s music has to compete to be heard. It’s a nutty, bombastic score, but anything more modest would have gotten lost in the histrionics.
To be clear, I have no problem with bold literary fiddle-di-dees like Ophelia. No masterpiece is set in stone, and Shakespeare didn’t invent the story anyway. (Some scholars — notably Harold Bloom — think the text we know today was Shakespeare’s rewrite of his own early, now-lost revenge melodrama, which Bloom calls the “Ur-Hamlet.”) My issue is that Ophelia, for all its juice, is laborious — a joke that goes on too long — and that the original actually does a better job of inspiring female revolt. This, Shakespeare says, is what happens to an innocent young woman in a world in which men (in conflict with one another) make all the choices for her — mansplaining leading literally to tragedy. But I admit that the original is terribly depressing and that it’s fun to think of women taking up arms against not just kings but the whole Western canon. If nothing else, it makes people like Harold Bloom — and me — uncomfortable.
*A version of this article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!