by Cat McAlpine
You’ve probably seen the painting “Ophelia” by Sir John Everett Millais (1852). It’s one of the most iconic images born from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and one of the most well-known paintings of the 19th century. In it, fair Ophelia floats on her back in a river, surrounded by her red hair, elaborate gown, and a fistful of flowers.
This painting seems to be the sole aesthetic for director Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia-centric Hamlet adaptation, as evidenced by a horrible red wig, and the film’s open on a recreation of the painting. Also Ophelia’s quirk is she likes to leave the castle in the middle of the day and just walk into the river?
This iconic imagery is immediately interrupted with a “You may think you know my story…” voice over that immediately dashed all my hopes for Ophelia. The following film was a bizarre infantilizing of a classic heroine, already disadvantaged by her source material. Writers Semi Chellas (adaptation) and Lisa Klein (novel) navigate a series of bizarre Shakespearian fan-service plot twists that only make the story seem less grounded.
You see, Hamlet (a very good George MacKay) fell for Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) because she was quirky. The other girls didn’t like her because she didn’t have money for jewels and didn’t care to learn to dance properly.
This characterization of Ophelia is so cheap that the chemistry between MacKay and Ridley fizzles, further highlighting Hamlet’s unhinged impulses while Ophelia remains a canvas for him to project onto. Ridley surprisingly has more chemistry with charming Devon Terrel (Horatio).
Because this re-telling gets the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead treatment, flourishes to the tale only happen in the margins when Ophelia would be off stage, and the story is still bound to all the events penned by Shakespeare. This means many key plot points seem to fly in from nowhere, even for those familiar with the original play. Out of nowhere Ophelia is awoken and told “Your father is dead. Hamlet accidentally killed him.” And while we’re experiencing events through Ophelia’s lens, we’re still left asking “Wait…what happened?”
Time that could’ve been spent developing Ophelia’s character or deepening her connection to her family (familial relationships being the focus of Hamlet) is instead spent on weird through lines about witchcraft and a secret twin. And while Ophelia ends up somewhere we don’t expect with a final resilient message about valuing yourself, the ending feels almost tacky instead of triumphant.
McCarthy’s film isn’t without merit. There’s some clever weaving of Shakespeare’s text into the dialogue. The costuming is beautifully done and the play-with-a-play performance makes for powerful imagery done in silhouette. The fight choreography is beautiful, fierce, and performed with a great fluidity. In all times, when the film is following the original plot, the fevered intensity of Hamlet shines through.
I hope one day sweet Ophelia gets a good story, a method for her madness, and a resolution for her watery demise. But this isn’t it.