Die-hard Shakespeare fans, you might want to steer clear if you worship the original "Hamlet." Major source-material changes ahead. Spoiler: She doesn't die in this one.
If you haven't yet heard of this film, "Ophelia" was released in the U.S. on June 28 of this year to very select theaters, but it's initial premiere was at Sundance in 2018. It is adapted from the novel of the same name by Lisa Klein, in which she reimagines Shakespeare's "Hamlet" to instead be told by his love, Ophelia, and her story through the events of the play. It has a woman lead, was written by a woman, and was directed and adapted for the screen by women.
The film opens up with Daisy Ridley's Ophelia floating exquisitely in a large pond, a bouquet in one hand, and her taupe brocade gown milky beneath the water (an applaud to the Sir John Everett Millais painting?). It's the ending we're expecting to see later on, even as there's a voice over from Ophelia, announcing to viewers that if we thought we knew her story, we're definitely about to be surprised. I was already hooked. I mean, to be honest, I was on board as soon as it was announced Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts would star together in a Shakespeare-inspired period film because come on.
The film then takes us through young Ophelia's life at court, where she and young Hamlet exchange curious looks. He eventually goes off to university, and comes back later, played by George MacKay, as the young man we're all familiar with (if you've read "Hamlet" of course - which by the way, is not at all necessary to understand and enjoy this film).
There's a significant addition of a storyline for Watts' Queen Gertrude that is worth mentioning, in which she has a witchy twin sister who resides in the woods and provides Ophelia with a very important and perhaps familiar potion which becomes crucial in the last leg of the film: it mimics the effects of death. Is Elsinore near Verona, by chance? Also, this sister used to be in love with the king's brother, Claudius, who eventually marries Gertrude and becomes the new king. What I love about this addition is that it is included to make a very specific commentary of Claudius, and to center a woman's experience: this twin sister was pregnant with his child when they were young, and instead of caring for her and his unborn baby, he accused her of witchcraft and had her burned at the stake - which she evaded, of course, but the child is never born. Ophelia learns of this and is rightfully horrified. This informs her perception of Claudius. Thus, the film is somewhat examining the power dynamic between men and women, specifically misogyny and women's bodily autonomy. Unfortunately, this is actually quite timely for 2019.
I already loved Ridley from "Star Wars" and she was great in her supporting role in "Murder on the Orient Express." But this is a film where she truly shines as the lead. Something I see as her strong suit, and something her "Star Wars" co-star Adam Driver mentioned in an interview, is that Ridley is extremely emotionally-available. There was a scene in particular that, upon first viewing, I demanded someone rewind so I could watch again: When Ophelia and Hamlet were sitting alone in a romantically-lit garden, having escaped from the masked ball inside the castle, and they kissed for the first time, quite sweetly. The range of emotions that passes over Ridley's face in the seconds after is so well-executed. In this film, she acts in a very subtly-nuanced way that I deeply appreciate, especially for this character who possesses such a quiet strength.
Another shining moment in the film, which I was anxious to see and curious to know if it would even be included, is one of the pivotal scenes which also takes place in the original Hamlet in which Ophelia goes mad in the throne room. Except in this film, it's all a ruse. No damsel in distress here. There are other very feminist moments in this film as well, such as Ophelia's silly and relateable sexual-awakening which is in no way demonized or seen as inappropriate, enthusiastic consent of marriage to Hamlet, the attention given to showing her control over their interactions, and their wedding night is shot so beautifully and tastefully that it was definitely a highlight for me.
In the original "Hamlet", Ophelia's death is symbolic of her passivity in her relationship with Hamlet and others, and her suicide is seen as a tragic attempt to be in control for once, yes it's so sad, etcetera, etcetera. In "Ophelia", she takes control by not only evading death, but by following through with a plan to secure her own safety at the expense of the toxic characters threatening her. Can we stop killing off women for the progression of male storylines? We're more than a plot device, thank you.
I recently read this article from The Guardian which complains about how Ophelia spends a few scenes observing things happening around her instead of being active in them. But if you're paying attention, she's actually internalizing these things she's witnessing throughout the film - Claudius and Gertrude kissing before the king's death, for example - and the very altered ending scene is a calculated move. It is the ending she chooses, right or wrong, and she is in full control when she decides to put a stop to the corruption, lies and deceit, also at the expense of a very personal loss to her. Ultimately, Ophelia rejects the notions of revenge, betrayal and rage. She is more than capable of being an emotional character while making significant sacrifices and decisions.
I think what really makes this a feminist film - and its source, feminist literature - is not that the main character identifies as a woman, but the there are intentional changes to this story from the original "Hamlet" that purposefully shift the entire perspective of the film and major plot pieces to become woman-centered in historically-significant ways.
Something else The Guardian article doesn't like is the film's deviation from Shakespearean lingo, and the plot additions and alterations. But these are imaginary characters. They've been around a long, long time, and were created by someone who isn't living and hasn't been alive for quite a while. Why shouldn't we play around with them and see what comes of it? That's the really fun thing about literature, especially classics, asking those "What if?" questions and letting the stories and characters inspire new creations in fresh ways for new generations and communities.
"Hamlet" is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and yet I also adore this reimagining of the story centuries later. Seriously, "Hamlet" is over 400 years old. I think it was overdue for an update.