While reviewing Rian Johnson’s new whodunnit film Knives Out this week, I was a little critical of its attempt to take on Agatha Christie at her own game and its inevitable failure to measure up. This new film actually attempts to retell Hamlet so in terms of contemporary artists taking on the work of those that have come before it makes Knives Out looks like Spielberg remaking Plan 9 from Outer Space, or Adele doing a cover of Achy Breaky Heart. In fact no, those comparisons don’t even come close, this is someone rewriting Shakespeare for goodness sake! How could it hope to work?
I have to say, by my mind it does work. I really like Ophelia. I’m a bit of a Shakespeare nerd as well so you might think I’d be more likely to take against it but my appreciation for The Bard only enhanced my enjoyment of this. Director Clare McCarthy, screenwriter Semi Chellas and author Lisa Klein clearly know what they are toying with here and while large parts of the source material are depicted as we know them, the way they reframe these moments or make subtle references to other events and dialogue is clever. The ‘get thee to a nunnery’ line in particular takes on a much less patriarchal and dismissive tone as it is presented here.
This of course the whole point of Ophelia; as you would assume from that title this a retelling of the famous story that centres around its second female lead and repaints her as a strong proactive woman rather than the fragile and ineffectual girl she is known as. As such this plays the same trick as Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, darting in and out of the main action of Hamlet while showing a lot of what happened to more minor characters ‘behind the scenes’.
The first half an hour actually plays as a prequel to play. In these early moments Hamlet’s father is still alive and Hamlet and Ophelia are able to get to know each other and fall in love in the comfortable environment of a palace untroubled by death and deceit. In these sequences we also get an idea of why Queen Gertrude behaves as she does following the demise of her husband. In fact this character, who is the female lead of Hamlet, is also presented as a more autonomous women in this set up. Once the action catches up with the story we know the only real changes to Shakespeare’s plot come at the very end and are rewritten to make Gertrude less passive too. Changing Shakespeare’s established narrative is bold of course but Baz Luhrmann made a similar move with the dying moments of his protagonists in Romeo + Juliet and got away with it. It works here as well because of the different context. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that this revised ending it better than what William came up with (unlike Baz’s tweaks which actually were) but it is better here. It is also clearly a lot more feminist and that’s the point.
This is why Ophelia works in a way that Knives Out didn’t. No one here is trying to do what Shakespeare did as well or better. They are not playing him at his own game. It’s more like they are playing a different game on the same field, cheering the main game on as they go. The real mastery of Shakespeare was not his plotting anyway, which in many cases was not his plotting at all but taken from other sources. It is his words and his characterisation that are so special. Ophelia clearly doesn’t try to take on the poetry, in fact the dialogue which is ripe in places might be one of the weaker elements of the film, but it is true to the people he created. Ophelia might challenge some of the outdated gender ideas in Shakespeare but it compliments everything else. There are some quite large leaps in the story when dealing with Ophelia and Gertrude’s hidden lives but actually even these events have precedent in the wider works of Shakespeare so it’s hard to criticise this.
Ophelia premiered at Sundance in January 2018 and finally screened in the US this Summer. It hasn’t had a UK theatrical release at all only turning up this week for home viewing for the first time so it clearly hasn’t had the easiest journey. I admired it though. It does a good job in its attempt to reposition a classic character as an ambassador for equality, more so than Maleficent, and it takes successful shots at representations of women in film more broadly. There is one shot from the POV of Ophelia looking through a window as the object of her affections leaves to return to his studies abroad. Subconsciously I imagined her leaning in, simpering and longingly stroking the glass because this is how I have seen this type of thing play out in hundreds of other films from Rebecca and Breakfast at Tiffany’s to The Muppets but was then pleased to see the camera pull back and show her sitting there nonchalantly in complete control of her emotions.
Daisy Ridley is strong in the title role (I’m sure that fact that she has a certain other movie opening in cinemas in eleven days time has helped this see the light of day now) and she is well supported by George McKay, Tom Felton, Naomi Watts and Clive Owen. I definitely recommend this film and want to support it getting a wider audience than the one it has evidently enjoyed so far. It would be a shame if this chance to see Ophelia from a new angle is not something anyone sees.