Voici plus de mille ans que la triste Ophélie
Passe, fantôme blanc, sur le long fleuve noir;
Voici plus de mille ans que sa douce folie
Murmure sa romance à la brise du soir.
Sad Ophelia has now passed more than a thousand years
As a white ghost afloat on the long black river;
For more than a thousand years, her sweet madness
Has murmured its romance to the evening breeze.
— Arthur Rimbaud, "Ophélie"
OPHELIA, AS RIMBAUD NOTES, has been with us a long time now; is there anything new to say about her too-short life, her picturesque death, her douce folie? Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, with an excellent, antic screenplay from Semi Chellas (Mad Men, The Romanoffs), answers with an emphatic yes, offering a fresh story about one of the most famously picturesque dead girls in history. It is a movie full of silliness, witchcraft, and murder, but not in the ways you’d expect, and often signifying more than first appears.
What’s different this time around? Instead of murmuring her lovesickness into the unlistening night breeze, as Rimbaud has it, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) talks directly to the audience, via voice-over — and not from beyond the grave. She acknowledges that we’ve heard her story many times before, but this time, she says, we'll get the true version because she's telling it herself. Soon, we see Ophelia cross-dressing as a boy so that she’ll be allowed into the boys’ library (where she masters Herodotus and the Greeks), and scampering around the castle the way they do. When Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) discovers that Ophelia is a girl, Gertrude takes a shine to her, and Ophelia joins the court as a lady in waiting, though her lack of noble blood — along with her literacy and her aptitudes in the garden — leaves her open to mockery from rivals in the queen’s circle.Her relationship with Gertrude soon grows close, and when the queen has Ophelia read aloud to her from a racy romance, Ophelia discovers two things: the euphemisms of sex and courtship, and the intense loneliness of the queen, whose loveless marriage to Old Hamlet spurs a developing affair with his brother. When Old Hamlet dies, Young Hamlet (George MacKay) returns from Wittenberg to find a wedding banquet, and we are in Act I Scene 3 of the original.
But not quite. A lot of the famous scenes happen offstage (since Ophelia is absent from most of them), and instead we see the pleasantly smoldering love affair unfold between Ophelia and Hamlet, but under terms much more of Ophelia's making than in Shakespeare. To tell Ophelia’s story, McCarthy has shot the film in a gorgeous, over-opulent style, distinct from the darker palette with which Hamlet is usually performed. Anthony Lane, one of several critics to offer airily mixed (and sort of humorless?) reviews of Ophelia, complains that “the film seems to splash around in search of a suitable style.” That's not quite correct. The film, shot in the Czech Republic, has an aesthetic one could describe as “high fantasy,” photographed with a powerfully YA pastel sheen sometimes bright enough to belong on a trapper-keeper; you almost expect a dragon to swoop in at any moment, ready to be trained. This sheen rises and falls in concert with the action of the drama. While this sheen never entirely subsides, its fairytale glow diminishes after the first act, as Ophelia begins to observe the spiraling depravity of the court. Soon, that sheen becomes almost menacing, the gloss of a world where dead girls are picturesque, and Ophelia eventually decides that she wants nothing to do with a court where her most likely bet is ending up a subject for John Everett Millais. When Ophelia tells Horatio, who is studying to be a healer, “I have no interest in being a man's anatomy lesson,” she is referring to grave-robbing, but it also reads as a sharp rejection of the aestheticized dead girl. Ophelia has learned at court that Denmark, like drama, always loves a dead girl — so she decides to get out.
Screenwriter Semi Chellas has taken inspiration from Lisa Klein's 2006 YA novel of the same name but elevates the dialogue to a degree of Shakespearean cleverness that generally serves a purpose beyond mere mimicry. (McCarthy has described the screenplay as a “melting pot of the original play and then Lisa’s book and then Semi’s work connecting it.”) When Gertrude sees the child Ophelia for the first time, the queen chides Polonius for his daughter's grimy face. “This is ladies’ work to polish such a treasure,” he responds, “and alas I am no lady.” “Alas indeed,” Gertrude says, cupping Ophelia’s chin to get a better look at her. Ophelia interjects: “I may be a lass, but that is no cause for such ‘alassing’; I would not want to be a lad.” Even as a child, Ophelia picks up on the word games of a court in which words and people are slippery, and the dialogue of the movie frequently recalls Shakespeare without overworking things or losing its admirable vernacular energies. Shakespeare's Ophelia is well spoken in an obsequious way that bespeaks her tenuous place at court and her vulnerability to the prince, and, as the play progresses, she increasingly becomes a vessel for words of those two patriarchs, her father and the King. Chellas’s Ophelia, on the other hand, is more than Hamlet’s rival in verbal and metaphysical badinage; more often, in fact, she’s leading the conversation.
But the love of the prince only spurs new abuse from her rivals at court. “You dance like a goat, Ophelia,” one lady in waiting informs her. As Ophelia has no mother or aunt to give her such lessons, she learns about the perils of womanhood from Gertrude (an imperfect tutor) and Mechtild, a witch in the woods, also played by Naomi Watts. (Yes, there's a witch in the woods; this movie is always Going For It.) While Gertrude mopes over being rich and horny, Mechtild is consigned to the forest, where she distils essences from herbs and trafficks in venoms from the New World. Per the filmmakers, the movie is set in the 14th century, and there are a handful of such anachronisms; McCarthy plays with these lightly, these iconoclastic plot twists feeling, in their way, deeply Shakespearean. The witch warns Ophelia that the court will punish her for her womanhood: “You are wild and full of desire. […] They will strip you naked,” Mechtild tells her.
McCarthy and Chellas effect all sorts of playful inversions and make quite merry in rewriting Shakespeare’s tragedy. One of the most pleasing elements of this gaudy adventure, though, is how much this alternate rendition of the Hamlet story explains so many of the famous mysteries within Shakespeare’s original, including some of Hamlet’s more unaccountable behavior with Ophelia when others are watching. Indeed, in this version, for Ophelia’s sake, Hamlet even forswears the crown in a private wedding ceremony that does not appear in — but also isn't antithetical to — the original text. On the contrary, this liberty only lends additional meaning to various of their public dialogues in Act III. Chellas’s brilliant rewrite of the scene where Hamlet upbraids Ophelia before declaiming his “To be or not to be” speech is deeply satisfying: we see that Ophelia and Hamlet are both capable of feigning madness — though in this version, it’s Ophelia’s madness that has more method in it — and using the language of madness to speak to one another through code. Shakespeare’s Ophelia, too, may speak through code in her madness, dispensing flowers like judgments on the king and queen, but Ridley’s Ophelia has a strategy beyond the lake.
Hamlet does right by Ophelia more here than in Shakespeare, but he still disappoints her in the end. She offers him an out from the whole cycle of drunken, incestuous kingmaking. “You forswore the crown when you married me,” she reminds him. “I did not know then that it was stolen,” Hamlet replies. Men were deceivers ever.
The final sequence is best left unspoiled, but it’s powerful to see how resolutely Ophelia has remained herself as she reasons with Hamlet to come away with her. “Not every story must end with a battle,” she says, vowing not to “lose [herself] to vengeance.” Even if Hamlet refuses to tear himself away from the pursuit of power and revenge, Ophelia wants to get as far away from that rotten place as possible. Indeed, the movie leaves one with the persuasive impression that the “something rotten” in Denmark is patrilineal monarchy itself.
Shakespeare-lovers should welcome Ophelia as a noble addition to the Hamlet Extended Cinematic Universe. Watching or reading Hamlet after Ophelia brings new pleasures. Yes, there are moments of deep silliness, but these also occur in Shakespeare. Will the movie be a gateway to the Bard for a younger audience? Perhaps. By rights, it certainly ought to send precocious viewers off to enjoy the sharp-tongued heroines of Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and so many others. I don’t think it overstates the case to say that Challas’s script will prepare such viewers well for the wordplay and the portraits of power that they will find in Shakespeare. The movie, while imperfect, is fascinating and more than a little bewitching. And if the witches come from Macbeth, and some of the other trickery from Romeo and Juliet, the moral of the film seems to come from a different Shakespeare play: "The fraud of men was ever so."
Ted Scheinman is a senior editor at Pacific Standard magazine and a contributing editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.