There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,
Disheveled, dressed in white, decorated in flowers, drowned: You know her image. An innocent maiden, a girl in love, caught in the whirlpool schemes of men: You know her story. Ophelia: You know her name.
But do you really know her?
Since Shakespeare chose a Greek name for the love interest of his Danish prince, Ophelia has become a symbol of a women’s madness, equally fueled by love and loss and lies. In the play, she is a victim — not of evil King Claudius’s machinations but of Hamlet’s careless disregard. Her death is tragic but ambiguous. Did she fall from that willow tree into the river below, or did she throw herself to the depths, clutching a bouquet of flowers and broken promises as she drowned?
Shakespeare leaves the answer to his audience, and thus has Ophelia remained an enigma. Like the still waters she disturbed, Ophelia is a character with more below the surface than Shakespeare’s words superficially convey. And perhaps that was intentional.
In Greek, Ophelia means “help.”
And there is pansies. That’s for thoughts.
Feminist retelling of classic stories are nothing new. When I was far too young, I read several books that retold the King Arthur stories through the eyes of Guinevere and Morgan le Fay, books that made real women out of the villainized queens from legend. Wide Sargasso Sea is a famously feminist and anti-colonialist revision of Jane Eyre from the perspective of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, the non-white and non-English “madwoman in the attic.” In its original 17th-century French, Beauty and the Beast itself is a modern version of the Cupid and Psyche myth.
It’s worth noting that these retellings, and many more I haven’t named, were all written by women.
Film, meanwhile, is ripe ground for retellings of all sorts, feminist ones most of all. 10 Things I Hate About You. Bridget Jones’s Diary. Clueless. Ever After. Maleficent. She’s The Man. I could go on, but instead, I’ll note again that these movies were all written or co-written by women, too.
Consider Maleficent, specifically. Rape is an ever-present motif in the fairy tale of Sleeping Beauty, though time and Disney have softened the issues of consent to a kiss that wakes the sleeping princess from the rape and subsequent pregnancy through which she originally sleeps. Surely this dark legacy was on Linda Woolverton’s mind when she wrote Maleficent, which expands the villainess’s backstory to include a metaphorical rape when the man she loves drugs her and severs her wings from her body for the sake of advancing his own ambitions.
Yes, Maleficent is a Disney movie — a Disney movie — about sexual assault. And it’s getting a sequel. I still can’t believe any of that happened.
The stories that make up our canon, from the myths of Ancient Greece to the novels of Victorian England, sometimes do their female characters justice, but it is more common that they do not. The majority were written by men, you see, and just like history, just like everything, men tend to emphasize their own place in the world at the expense — and sometimes purposeful exclusion — of people who are not men. But even Mary Shelley, the mother of science-fiction and one of my idols, couldn’t escape this patriarchal trap: she leaves little room for Elizabeth Lavenza, Dr. Frankenstein’s lifelong love, to be anything more than a virginal girl murdered on her wedding night. (See Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein for yet another feminist revision.)
Women notice these things. Women think about them. And then, if we’re lucky, they think about them so much that they create a story within a story. They fill the gaps we have been trained not to notice.
They bring drowned women back to life.
There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue
for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it
herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with
Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia is a movie that was made explicitly for me. It’s a perfect storm of everything I love, from feminist retellings written and directed by women and historically accurate 14th-century costumes and settings to Daisy Ridley and, weirdly enough, the best parts of A Knight’s Tale and Sleepy Hollow. As a result, the praises I sing are rather biased, and I very much doubt most people will get out of Ophelia as much as I did.
The most objective thing I can say about Ophelia is that it’s a sumptuous film, and even that descriptor comes from a very specific part in my background. In graduate school, I took a class on ritual and spectacle in early modern Europe (roughly 1300 to 1700). Six years on, I remember barely any of it except for papal processions and sumptuary laws. The latter has always stuck in my mind because of their oddity: Sumptuary laws were designed to regulate conspicuous consumption. That is, they were meant to keep newly rich people — and women especially — from looking too rich.
The majority of sumptuary laws applied to fashion — i.e., who could wear what fabric and incorporate certain styles into their clothes — and were intended to delineate class in a way that was immediately visible. Women from families who made their wealth instead of inheriting it could get fined for embroidering their clothes with gold thread because such luxury signaled that they were dressing above their station. More often than not, though, the fines never materialized. Sumptuary laws were almost impossible to enforce, but they stayed on the books anyway. Keeping up appearances, you know. Keeping women in their place.
But back to Ophelia. It’s not really that the film reminds me of sumptuary laws in and of themselves, but more that the opulent costuming and rich set dressings of Castle Elsinore illustrated to me probably for the first time why sumptuary laws existed in the first place. Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini, production designer Dave Warren and set decorator Ute Bergk fill the film with so much incidental detail that I, a historian who works with real historical objects, felt like I could reach out and touch a piece of history I only knew academically through my computer screen. That doing so would take me back in time.
The tapestries have dust, the painted walls are fading, the engraved thrones are regal yet rubbed worn. From the start, Elsinore feels old in its own time, which is something most period films shot in a studio struggle to accomplish. Ophelia benefits from shooting on location in the Czech Republic alongside studio sets built in the same country and modeled on historic places that are too treasured (and inaccessible) to film. The result is stunningly beautiful, and with the exception of an irreplicable altar at Krivoklat Castle which provides the setting for a wedding scene, I would defy you to identify which interiors have existed since the Middle Ages and which were built within the last five years. Such is the artistic talent on display here.
Along the same lines, the costumes. My god, the costumes. Every single article of clothing in this movie looks like a painting. The fabrics are textured, embroidered and imperfect. The dresses are not particularly flattering, but then, in 14th-century Denmark, they wouldn’t be. The veils are delicate in a way that modern textiles could never imitate (yet somehow do), and the golden headpieces that adorn the women’s heads, whether crowns or simple circlets, are tarnished with use. With age.
This sumptuousness extends to other aspects of the film, particularly the cinematography and score. McCarthy’s camera and Denson Baker’s lighting fit seamlessly into Ophelia’s historical setting, and together they create a tangible world that doesn’t feel so very far removed from our own. Steven Price’s music only increases this effect as he combines delicate hums with a score that evokes medieval melodies without sounding like the kind of laughable imitation you’d find at a Renaissance Faire.
If there’s anything left to be desired in Ophelia, sadly, it’s the writing. Semi Chellas adapts Lisa Klein’s novel (which I have not read but certainly plan to) with a clunky voiceover that bookends the film. But more unfortunate than that is the pacing. Ophelia suffers the same problem as another story that famously shifts perspective, the Broadway musical Wicked. So much time is spent in the first act establishing Ophelia’s point of view before the events of Hamlet that the rest of the film is forced to rush through the play’s familiar plot at breakneck speed.
This would be a bigger problem but for two reasons. The first? Klein and Chellas’s reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s scenes and dialogue is truly fascinating to watch. The nunnery scene, for instance, transforms from a debatably mad Hamlet cruelly dismissing a devastated Ophelia to two lovers attempting to warn and protect each other from the conspirators who would see them both ruined. And although the dialogue is written to be fairly modern — no thees and thous here — it’s peppered with Shakespearisms that will surely bring smiles to the faces of the Bard’s devotees.
The second is Daisy Ridley.
There’s a daisy: I would give you
some violets, but they withered all when my father
died: they say he made a good end,–
For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
Say what you will about J.J. Abrams, but he knew what he was doing when he cast an unknown Daisy Ridley as the new heroine of Star Wars. Ridley has an unparalleled talent for infusing her performances with contradictions, and Rey is full of them: Without waxing too poetic, I’ll just say that for a woman who yearns to know her place in the galaxy, she is also the most centered and self-aware character in Star Wars, which Ridley conveys with a preternatural calm that she maintains even when the past disappoints her and the future she envisioned shatters before her eyes.
Ridley similarly plays to her strengths as Ophelia and positively blooms. Her Ophelia is neither a pawn nor a victim, but a commoner who has been raised to the position of lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and thus knows better than most the care with which she must choose her words — and her loyalties. She is quiet and often ridiculed by Gertrude’s other ladies for going outside and literally getting her hands dirty when she goes among her beloved flowers. But it is those qualities that make her odd that also garner Gertrude’s attention, and by the time Ophelia first meets Hamlet (George McKay), she is already his mother’s most trusted confidante.
Ophelia’s dress is plain — for most of the film, she’s dressed in a simple gown of tranquil blue (and never in white) — and her speech is pointed. Perhaps it is her beauty that first attracts Hamlet to her, but these qualities turn his attraction into love. Ophelia falls slower, knowing the dangers of the power imbalance between a prince and a servant, but she falls nonetheless. Ridley’s performance here is particularly good, for she seems as surprised as anyone that she loves Hamlet. He’s kind of a dope, after all, but I can speak with some authority that women with invisible armor around their hearts have a tendency to let earnest goofballs through its cracks.
And then the tragedy unfolds. McCarthy and Chellas have a delicate balance to maintain as they reorient Hamlet around Ophelia, making her a fly-on-the-wall of various conflicts from the play as much as she is an active participant in using that very same position in the background to try and prevent the worst from befalling the people she loves (including her brother Laertes, played by a woefully underused Tom Felton; the two of them really shine in their few scenes together). Ridley is more than up to the challenge, and somehow makes the audience feel that despite the inevitability of the tragedy, it’s still possible that she might be able to change things.
And change things she does. The more drastic changes I’ll leave for you to see for yourself, but it’s the subtler ones that deserve a second look. Most significantly, Ridley’s Ophelia changes the very meaning of Ophelia’s story. No longer do we have a maiden deflowered, deserted and driven mad, but a woman who has made a careful study of the people around her and knows how to act in order to ensure her own survival.
To escape a brutal marriage meant to silence her (arranged by Clive Owen’s King Claudius, a threatening cartoon if there ever was one), Ophelia takes a page from Hamlet’s book and plays at madness, twisting Ophelia’s most famous appearance in the play into something breathtaking. Ridley is never better than in this scene, where everything she does contains a double meaning. Her every word is weighted with performance and truth, and every flower she hands to her friends and enemies alike is simultaneously a barb meant to wound them and a tool to prove her madness. It is only when she gets to the violets that her performance breaks, and Ophelia’s buried grief breaks through.
“I would give you some violets,” she says, eyes cast down, “but they withered all when my father died.” Just thinking about Ridley’s delivery of this line makes my throat close up. As if Star Wars wasn’t enough, she proves herself here to be a master of quiet power.
Equally worthy of praise is Watts, playing an unexpected dual role as Gertrude and her mysterious twin sister, Mechtild. Watts is given a hefty role in Gertrude especially, as McCarthy and Chellas spend quite a lot of time making the queen less of a reviled mother and more of a character in her own right. Gertrude is the one who suffers the most in the film, even more than Hamlet. After all, Hamlet does not have to contend with an aging face, a distant husband, a self-absorbed son, an alluring brother-in-law, a hidden sister, a dark past or a drug addiction. Gertrude is not guiltless in Claudius’s skullduggery, but she’s also a victim in her own way, and Watts does an excellent job in portraying those discrepancies with real humanity.
Ophelia, then, is not just a feminist reworking of the title character, but of Gertrude as well. Between the two of them, they reveal a woman’s role in the 14th century — not just in relation to the men around them, but between themselves. Of low birth herself, Gertrude (whose nightgown is embroidered with gold thread) raises up Ophelia (whose nightgown is not), trusts her with her secrets and treats her as her own daughter right until the moment she learns that Ophelia’s ambitions might match her own. Marrying a prince to become a queen is straight out of a fairy tale, but it’s a fairy tale that Gertrude reserves only for herself. For Ophelia to supplant her would be Gertrude’s worst nightmare.
It’s a profound exploration of one of the many ways the patriarchy pits women against one another. Just like Snow White’s Wicked Queen, Gertrude wants to remain the fairest of them all — and the only woman with power, as limited as it is. Ophelia is more conflicted, giving up on Gertrude only when she learns her role in Claudius’s murder plot. At the same time, though, Ophelia never stops feeling empathy for her surrogate mother because she knows all too well the hard choices Gertrude was forced to make to protect herself.
That’s one of the things Ophelia does best with the Hamlet story. Ophelia knows Gertrude isn’t a villain at all. She’s just a woman.
Oh, Ophelia, you been on my mind, girl, since the flood
Oh, Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love“Ophelia,” The Lumineers
On Tuesday, Daisy Ridley appeared on Good Morning America and said Ophelia felt like it was the first time she was the lead of a film. She’s not wrong: Star Wars is very much an ensemble, and bit parts make up the rest of her IMDb page. She also said that for that reason, taking on the role of Ophelia was intimidating. More intimidating than Star Wars, you say? And I say of course it is.
Ophelia is a risk for everyone involved. It’s a low-budget period piece directed by a woman that messes with one of the most revered plays of all time. Though it’s coming out today, it’s not going into wide release before its VOD release on July 2 (for which, sadly, the Indianapolis market will have to wait). The only reason Ridley was on Good Morning America to promote this movie at all is not because she’s the star of Ophelia, but because she’s the star of Star Wars. Very few people will see this movie, and fewer will write 2,900 words about it. (“Oh, Ophelia, heaven help a fool who falls in love?” It’s me, I’m the fool.)
It’s a shame. I’m greedy enough to feel lucky that Ophelia sits perfectly in my Venn diagram of interests but realistic enough to know that my interests are in the minority of a minority. I firmly believe that nothing is more valuable than reinterpretations of familiar stories, whether it’s the stories we learn in childhood as actual history (ask me sometime about how old I was when I learned what the War of 1812 was really about) or the stories we continue to tell in plays, books, movies and television. A fresh perspective can change everything you thought you knew about that story; it doesn’t alter it so much as it enriches it.
Even so, Ophelia will never supplant Hamlet in our cultural lexicon. She’ll never be the role every actor longs to play.
But Ophelia helps us know her a little better. Ophelia brings herself back to life.