By Peg Aloi
Ophelia is moving, intoxicating, haunting: the most visually pleasurable film I’ve seen so far this year.
Ophelia, directed by Claire McCarthy and written by Semi Chellas. Screening at West Newton Cinema.
Shakespeare’s unruly tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has, to quote a line from a competing playwright, launched a thousand homages and satires. It has been parodied by Gilligan’s Island (which staged a hilarious, and rather clever, musical version), re-imagined by Tom Stoppard in his Beckett-inspired Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead, and skewered in any number of cultural contexts, high and low. But, until now, there hasn’t been a strong re-envisioning of Ophelia, Hamlet’s favorite, a young woman who drowns herself after a mysterious “mad” scene in which she scatters herbs and flowers in front of the king and queen. She has inspired some fascination: there are many stunning pre-Raphaelite paintings that depict Ophelia moments before or after her death, emphasizing her beauty and youth, all limning a passion in her expression and gesture that belies her suicidal impulse.
One such painting, by John Everett Millais, is clearly the inspiration behind the opening shot of Australian filmmaker Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. The character is lying face up in the water, clasping a bouquet of wildflowers in her right hand, wearing an embroidered pale gold gown. The film, like the painting, meticulously pictures rich woodland greenery surrounding a sylvan pool, a bucolic setting that establishes a strong connection between Ophelia and nature. With a crackling script by Semi Chellas (writer and producer for Mad Men and The Romanoffs), adapted from the debut novel by Lisa Klein, this revisionist version of Hamlet, conjured by a trio of three women, comes on as a feminist juggernaut, steeping Shakespeare’s classic in gorgeous romance.
Ophelia begins by taking ownership of her story: in voiceover, Daisy Ridley (Rey in a bunch of Star Wars, but I’ve a feeling this role will boost her profile) claims she has seen heaven and hell, and is determined to tell the truth of what happened. Flashing back to being a scruffy little girl, she is seen tagging along with her brother Laertes, who teaches her to read after he returns from his studies at the King’s palace. Ophelia is strong-willed and curious, and she sneaks into a dinner at court, emerging from her hiding place under to the table to challenge Claudius (Clive Owen), the king’s brother, when he puts a less than charitable spin on the tale of Adam and Eve. The dinner is meant to honor young Hamlet, who is about to go off to school abroad; the two youngsters (he is 15, she is perhaps 12) have a shy chemistry. Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) takes Ophelia under her wing, seeing the classic beauty beneath her smudged exterior, making her one of her ladies in waiting.
But Ophelia still pursues her love for gathering flowers and swimming in her secret woodland pool. The other girls mock her lower class origins, but the queen tells her to hold her head high and embrace her individuality. Ophelia’s bright emerald green gowns telegraph her outsider status; they also show off her auburn hair and rosy skin. The film’s color palette is a fetishistic homage to Ophelia’s beauty — and it works. A few years later, when Hamlet (George MacKay) returns from his studies, he and friend Horatio (Devon Terrell) come upon Ophelia bathing in the woods. Despite Horatio’s protests, Hamlet boldly challenges Orphelia to emerge from the water in just her shift. She nimbly observes that he has two sides (“one is base, the other better”), thus foreshadowing what those familiar with the play know to be his inconsistent treatment of her. Still, this isn’t Shakespeare — appearances can be deceiving. Charmed by Ophelia’s wit, Hamlet is smitten and soon starts to seek her out at court. They dance together at an elegant costume ball, which allows them to keep their romance hidden.
Various forces conspire to keep the lovers apart but, in a scene reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, the two are secretly married in a bucolic setting. The backdrop of meadows and forests are a constant reminder of Ophelia’s fate, even though the Bard’s original is being unraveled. An intriguing subplot involves a witch in the woods, who provides a potion that keeps Gertrude looking young: the witch (also played by Watts) shares secrets with Ophelia, who eventually finds herself ensnared in the deceitful clutches of Claudius, who usurps Hamlet’s throne and marries his father’s wife. Certain major plot points remain, but the changes in the narrative are intriguing and suspense-building. Ridley and MacKay crackle with plenty of onscreen energy. Owen is a narcissistic Claudius, and Watts shines in her dual role of queen and witch. The small roles are beautifully cast; pictorial details are lushly rendered. Ophelia is moving, intoxicating, haunting: the most visually pleasurable film I’ve seen so far this year. The music by Steven Price (Gravity, Attack the Block) is lively and evocative, with authentic medieval instrumentation and one anachronistic contemporary piece that has Ridley singing the “Doubt thou the stars are fire” verse from a letter Hamlet wrote to Ophelia.
Perhaps some viewers (literary types especially) may find the re-vamping of Shakespeare contrived or inappropriate. But this film isn’t made for them. It’s made for those who have gazed thoughtfully on paintings by Millais and Waterhouse and Delacroix, pictures inspired by the sensuous elements of a story that many have felt were barely fleshed out. It’s for those who have been moved by images of Ophelia gathering flowers in the forest, standing hesitantly at the water’s edge, gazing behind her one last time, trying to decide what to do. Not a story of madness, but of possibility.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes regularly for The Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at at themediawitch.com.