Ophelia Is The Hamlet Teen Drama We’ve Been Waiting For

Hello, everyone! If you’ve read any Shakespeare, or been forced to read of any of it, you might have discovered that the Western world takes The Bard’s oeuvre very seriously. As a teenager reading works like Hamlet in high school, it never ceased to amaze me how modern versions of this play portrayed Hamlet’s ridiculous teenage antics in the most reverent of lights, casting well-respected actors like Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant in the lead role, and glossing over just how soapy Shakespeare’s most angsty teen drama really was. It took until 2018 for us to finally get the Hamlet CW drama that we rightfully deserve. Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, based on the Lisa M. Klein’s novel of the same name, tells the famous story through Ophelia’s eyes, and although it diverges from the original source material significantly, it gives the audience all the soap opera love triangles, angst, and teenage foolishness that the original could only imply. Purists will be offended, but for those of us who celebrate Shakespeare as the world’s first YA author, this film is what you’ve been waiting for.

Synopsis: As the low-born daughter of Polonius, the king’s lacky, young Ophelia grows up in the court of Elsinore unfettered by societal expectations. When Gertrude, the queen, discovers the girl at a banquet, she makes her a lady-in-waiting and teaches her how to become a proper lady. Now a teenager, Ophelia meets Prince Hamlet, who seems to love her for her honesty and unconventional behavior. Their romance seems charmed until Hamlet’s father dies and his uncle Claudius assumes the throne, robbing Hamlet of his inheritance and sending him into a tailspin of intrigue and vengeance. Ophelia’s loyalties are tested as she must decide whether to follow Hamlet on his dangerous path, or break free and forge her own.

My thoughts: Before we even discuss the plot, and how it differs from the source material, we need to talk about how drop-dead gorgeous McCarthy’s film is. The middle ages are rarely shown onscreen as anything but a time of darkness and filth, so McCarthy’s emphasis on the era’s vibrant clothing, colorful interior design, and lush scenery stand in stark contrast to the status quo. Take a look at some of these stills:

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Naomi Watts as Queen Gertrude
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Daisy Ridley as Ophelia
Daisy Ridley and George MacKay as Ophelia and Hamlet

McCarthy’s vision of Ophelia’s Elsinore is very different from the gloomy castle presented to us in the original play. Her world may be full of color and texture, but that doesn’t mean it lacks the presence of spooky ghosts and the menace of dangerous political games. Showing the court of Elsinore through Ophelia’s perspective gives the story a greater context. Instead of being stuck inside Hamlet’s paranoid mind, with death and betrayal around every corner, we see the glory of the court before the murder of Hamlet’s father, and have a better understanding of what is at stake if Hamlet’s revenge plans fail.

Even more beautiful than the visual aesthetics are the costumes, designed by so-called “fashion archeologist” Massimo Cantini Parrini. Instead of basing the costumes off of historically accurate records of 14th and 15th century clothing, Parrini took inspiration from the paintings of John William Waterhouse and J.M.W Turner, as well as from Ancient Greek statues. The result is a collection that’s breathtakingly romantic and gives the film a more fantasy-based sense of time and place than the usual Shakespeare adaptation. By combining opulent set pieces with romantic costuming, McCarthy was able to create a film that looks like a pre-Raphaelite painting, and her re-production of Sir John Everett Millais’ iconic Ophelia further demonstrates her keen artistic eye. Just for the mise-en-scène alone, this movie is worth watching. Dare I call it the most visually stunning Shakespeare film adaptation? I dare say I do. It’s certainly the best-looking adaptation of Hamlet.

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Look at this headdress! It’s gorgeous!

Apart from the film’s impressive aesthetics, it also has a strong story at its core. Rather than re-telling Hamlet’s story, the film pushes that aside in favor of focusing on Ophelia’s relationship with Gertrude as well as her romance with Hamlet. As someone who is incredibly bored of hearing Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” monologue, I really appreciated this. We don’t see Hamlet waxing poetic at all in this film. We don’t see him kill Polonius, talk to a skull, or plot his revenge. Instead, we see Ophelia’s perspective on Hamlet’s strange behaviors, which is a real breath of fresh air.

In the original play, Ophelia is something of a cipher. She is in love with Hamlet, Hamlet seems to love her, and then he discards her, mocks her, and kills her father, which ultimately leads to her committing suicide out of grief. Ophelia has so little characterization that giving her any backstory, or any thoughts and emotions besides “I’m sad about Hamlet” differs greatly from the source material. Naturally, in a movie starring Ophelia, she gets a backstory, personal motivations, and agency, none of which she had in the original. Purists might be ticked off by this, but I don’t see anything wrong with giving a character actual characterization if it adds more meat to the story. The film’s Ophelia is clever, frank, and loyal, and Daisy Ridley gives a wonderful performance by adding substance to a character that was little more than a symbol.

Ophelia isn’t the only character to get reinvented in this movie. Hamlet, paranoid douchebro extraordinaire, becomes a lot more likeable in the film, thanks to his star-crossed romance with Ophelia. Instead of acting like the selfish murderous teen that Shakespeare wrote, McCarthy’s Hamlet is prudent, intelligent, and romantic. He truly loves Ophelia, and his famous “get thee to a nunnery” speech becomes another act designed to fool Claudius and get his revenge. Instead of acting alone on his revenge fantasies, he and Ophelia team up, with Ophelia providing intelligence gleaned from Gertrude, and acting as Hamlet’s moral compass. Although she can’t prevent his tragic fate, she does her best to steer Hamlet away from meaningless revenge, which gives this adaptation more emotional weight than the original ever had.

Likewise, Queen Gertrude is given new motivation and purpose in this adaptation. Instead of claiming her title of “most evil slut,” Gertrude’s actions against King Hamlet I are shown to be borne out of her feelings of isolation and neglect, and her marriage to Claudius is implied to be done under coercion. Although she, too, dies tragically, as does everyone except Ophelia (yay!), she gets one final moment of redemption before she dies. Shakespeare writes off Gertrude as a manipulative whore and Ophelia as a lovesick fool, so it’s great to see both women get some well deserved screen-time to share how they feel about Hamlet and Claudius’ insane blood feud.

Some elements of this movie are soapier than necessary. Rebranding Ophelia as an outcast at court is a relic of YA fiction, and her and Hamlet’s enemies-to-lovers romance also smacks of contemporary YA romance. These aren’t necessarily detrimental to the film, but they do strip it of some of its respectability. Since I recognize Hamlet as a secret YA drama, I relished the inclusion of these tropes, but your own mileage may vary.

Final consensus: Ophelia is a welcome addition to the canon of Hamlet adaptations. Breaking from the status quo, director Claire McCarthy imagines Elsinore as a lavish world of intrigue, romance, and murder. Ophelia and Gertrude finally get a chance to tell their side of the story, and no one is forced to watch Hamlet whine about his dead jester Yorick. All in all, much preferable to the original, and proves that Hamlet would be a perfect new drama for the CW.

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