OPHELIA. UK, 2018. Starring Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George MacKay Tom Felton, Dominic Mafham, Devon Terrell. Directed by Claire McCarthy.114 minutes. Rated M (Violence)
Ophelia. No further identification necessary (just as with those other Shakespearean leading ladies, Desdemona, Portia, Cordelia…).
At once, most of us think of Hamlet. And, of course, he does appear in this story. But, as Ophelia’s voice-over reminds us that, while we have heard her story and think that we know all that went on in Elsinore, we have not heard all her story and this is her opportunity to tell it.
This is a very stylish re-creation of those events, costumes and decor, the castle on a rock, interiors, domestic life, pageantry – and venturing out into the countryside, the mysterious cave of a witch, the pool in which Ophelia floats with the flowers. The film is intriguing to look at and the score to listen to.
We first meet Ophelia as a little girl, servant family in the court, looking at the boy Hamlet from afar as he goes away for his studies. Ophelia is rather forthright, even at this young age, making comments to the court out loud – but, she captures Queen Gertrude’s attention and grows up as a lady in waiting. So, we are introduced to Daisy Ridley as a rather strong and vigorous Ophelia (just as Daisy Ridley was even more strong and vigorous in the recent Star Wars blockbusters). Naomi Watts is impressive as Gertrude, what we know of her, and even more detail of what we didn’t know, the coldness of her husband, the king, tentative attraction to Claudius (Clive Owen sinister and scheming).
So, we see the familiar events, some variations on the events, glimpses of familiar characters, Laertes and Horatio, the fawning Polonius.
But, there are characters that Shakespeare did not seem to know about, especially the witch in her cave with potions, rejected by Claudius, supplying drug relief to Gertrude, visited by Ophelia – who, ultimately reveals a lot of truth about the past which motivates the witch to side with the incoming soldiers to invade the palace. (She has another secret but that is for the audience to discover and relish.)
The audience will discover that there are some other details that Shakespeare got wrong! Some of Hamlet’s behaviour, advice to Ophelia about the nunnery, and who actually kills Claudius. One of the strange things as we watch this story is that we forget that, while we know all about them from Shakespeare, the characters themselves actually don’t know until they make decisions and act – which makes us impute some motivations to them which they haven’t quite developed as yet!
While Ophelia is about twenty, so is Hamlet, young, inexperienced, moody, forced into swordplay by Claudius, shocked at the death of his father, forced to kneel before Claudius the King, disappointed with his mother – and organising the players in quite a striking sequence, silhouettes and outlines lit behind a sheet-screen. He is played as somewhat ingenuous, romantic, and somewhat bewildered by George MacKay. Tom Felton is Laertes.
For audiences who have no knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, this would prove an interesting costume drama. For those in the know, it is an intriguing sharing with Ophelia of what was happening behind the scenes (and, at the end, some significant borrowing from Romeo and Juliet) – and was Ophelia floating in the water the last to be seen of her?
The director is Australian Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City, The Turning).
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Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.