Ophelia (Daisy Ridley), like the Shakespeare play from which the character comes, is a tragic figure. Every bit as compelling as the source material from which the film is derived, the Claire McCarthy directed film paints a vividly passionate portrait of a woman, first love, but driven to madness by the Prince Hamlet’s (George MacKay) spurning. Consequent to her madness, as persons familiar with the Denmark play will attest, Ophelia drowns in the river.
The description Queen Gertrude of Denmark (Naomi Watts) gives of Ophelia’s death during Shakespeare’s play is indicative of an eyewitness account.
“As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.”
(The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark – Act IV, Scene iv, Page Seven)
The film opens with an image all too well know, but that is the first of only a few similarities to the Shakespeare play. No matter which theatrical genre one points to, whether it be a comedy, romance or tragedy reminiscent of A Midsomer Night’s Dream, The Winter’s Tale and Othello, respectively, numerous characters take much pleasure in mocking each other verbally. Shakespeare, having weaved captivating tales, presented characters spinning numerous double entendre within their many jabs.
Ophelia, with copious examples of wordplay throughout the production, is a fitting tribute to the stage play Shakespeare wrote centuries ago.
Because the widowed Polonius (Dominic Mafham) does not posses the means by which to raise a daughter correctly, the young Ophelia (Mia Quiney) is frequently mistaken for a boy. Fearlessly expressing her thoughts, even in front of the royals, is taken on as a lady-in-waiting. Consequently, after being bathed and corseted, Ophelia is taught the numerous rules associated with courtly behaviour. Despite her new surroundings, Ophelia maintains her identity as an individual. As a result, because of her independent essence, Gertrude takes to the young Ophelia most favourably.
On Hamlet’s return from college, the discovery of his father’s death and his uncle having claimed the Danish throne as his own, Ophelia is regarded by Claudius (Clive Owen) as a significant threat. This threat becomes increasingly more apparent to the new king as Ophelia and Hamlet’s behaviour becomes more and more aligned.
Mirroring what can be seen in unabridged 1996 Hamlet, the witty remarks are anything but mere jokes, as it is a clear indication of rational thought. In the play, in an aside comment made by Polonius, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ’t” (Hamlet – Act II, Scene ii, Page Nine).
Like the source material, with no great stretch of the imagination, one can see the complexities within Ophelia’s character. The bold strokes Semi Chellas takes to bring Shakespeare’s character out of the shadows are simply genius. While academics, scholars and Shakespeare aficionados remain engaged in hot debate as to whether the queen was actively involved in the murder of her first husband, from what we see in this film, Gertrude is significantly more enthralled with appearing youthful. The character literally wrecks of vanity. As for Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle is every bit as duplicitous as Shakespeare originally wrote the character.
With Polonius died at Hamlet’s hand, Laertes (Tom Felton) seeks revenge for his father’s murder. Claudius orders Hamlet back to England. Accompanying the prince, with orders to kill Hamlet from Claudius, is the prince’s friends Rosencrantz (Noel Czuczor) and Guildenstern (Martin Angerbauer).
The McCarthy directed film, a story where Denmark’s prince becomes a supporting character to Ophelia, is a bold interpretation of the Shakespeare play. “The play’s the thing Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Hamlet – Act II, Scene ii, Page 24). As in the play, Hamlet’s performers recreate Old Hamlet’s death for the pleasure of the court.
In a departure from the play, Ophelia survives the poison she takes and is alive to see the Fortinbras army advance of the palace. Laertes’ confrontation with Hamlet, mirroring the play and all adaptations, ends with a sword fight. While the two men duel, Ophelia departs Denmark to never return. Hamlet dies on the cold floor of the palace’s great hall. Gertrude, in the anger at Claudius, picks up her dead son’s sword and plunges it into the king’s chest.
As the Fortinbras raid the castle, having taken poison, Gertrude dies in her sister’s arms. The Ophelia of this film, with a daughter of her own, has a different ending to that seen in the play. Despite the line “Get thee to a nunnery” having a significantly different meaning to that which one might expect, Hamlet’s insistence that his lover is safe is readily apparent. Shakespeare’s classic tragic tale now has new life.