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William Shakespeare sure loved a doomed heroine. Some of the Bard’s most famous women — Juliet, Desdemona, Lady Macbeth — all met with a grisly fate, but few are as iconic as Hamlet’s Ophelia, who goes mad with heartbreak and drowns herself in a river. While Hamlet’s insanity and demise have been explored countless times since the play’s publication in 1603, much of Ophelia’s story happens off stage. Claire McCarthy’s new film Ophelia, led by Star Wars’ Daisy Ridley, aims to change that — and reimagine the character as a bold, complicated young heroine.
It’s a radical reinvention for a woman who’s most frequently portrayed in art and literature as a docile, waif-like beauty, driven mad by love and passively accepting her watery death.
“That’s often how women have been portrayed in storytelling — as the damsel in the distress,” says Naomi Watts, who plays Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude. “If their mind is powerful, it must be madness. And now there’s this shift that’s taking place, and that’s reflected in this storytelling.”
Based on Lisa Klein’s novel and premiering this month at the Sundance Film Festival, Ophelia follows its lowborn protagonist as she becomes the most trusted lady-in-waiting for Gertrude and strikes up a relationship with her son, Hamlet (George MacKay). Along the way, Ophelia gets caught up in the court’s deadliest betrayals and secrets, all while trying to find her own path. “We wanted her to feel a lot more empowered and a lot more visceral than the original Ophelia, who is really only in a handful of scenes,” McCarthy (The Waiting City) says. In other words, this Ophelia is more concerned with her own destiny than Hamlet’s emo mopiness. Ophelia’s new direction also gives the 400-year-old play new relevance in 2018. “There’s real currency in the fact that Ophelia was the victim, and now she’s been recast as the hero,” Watts says.
The play’s other major female character, Gertrude, also steps into the spotlight in Ophelia. Few of Shakespeare’s plays have deep, meaningful conversations between two women, but the relationship between the regal Gertrude and the young Ophelia is a major part of the film, as the queen takes her handmaiden under her wing.
“Her marriage has grown stale, and I think she sees herself in Ophelia,” Watts explains. “It’s just a spark that reignites her. It’s almost like she wants to put her on a path that she’s not been able to reach herself. So she sort of befriends her, and it’s like a project in a way that she wishes she could recreate or reinvent herself.”
Although the characters have been modernized, the film’s aesthetic stays true to the original play’s setting of 14th-century Denmark. McCarthy drew inspiration from period paintings, as well as the classic depictions of Ophelia. But while most of the famous images take a God’s eye view of the heroine’s death — like John Everett Millais’ iconic painting — McCarthy’s goal was to get up close and personal with Ophelia, both visually and emotionally.
“What happens if we take the camera under the water, if we plunge inside the story and we see it from a different viewpoint?” the director says. “I really wanted [the film] to have a sense of energy and feel like it’s fresh — not stale or musty or like it was a period story that we’d yawn at.”
So how do you make Shakespeare feel fresh, while still staying true to his most famous and beloved play? For McCarthy, her goal was to preserve the Bard’s original story — just while making the female characters more proactive and less reactive. “It’s looking at the story and saying, ‘How can we build a stronger and more dramatic way to represent these women to a modern audience and give a fresh take to the material?’ ” she says. That is the question.