This review contains spoilers for the film Ophelia, and presumes that Hamlet’s been around long enough that a spoiler warning is not necessary.
Entering the IFC theater to see Ophelia (2018) directed by Claire McCarthy, I was immediately stunned by just how many people were in the audience, though I should not have been. I even bought tickets in advance anticipating that if even a fraction of the people who showed up to Star Wars conventions had heard about this film, the theater might be packed by the time we got there. In fact, I was later to learn that Daisy Ridley was there for the screening, which did explain the packed seats of people who haven’t thought about Hamlet since their sophomore year of high school. There were so many moviegoers present for this screening that I almost felt guilty about distracting the audience while I jotted down notes on my phone. Almost.
The movie purports itself as a “feminist,” “revisionist” take on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a play that, other than a glossed-over pirate kerfuffle, really no one would argue requires revising. And yet, what is fanfiction for if not to change an entire narrative only to do nothing to reframe or improve upon the original themes of the text? No, this movie is a meandering, barely-thought-through, absolute hot mess punctuated by the laziest, cheapest wigs and hilariously nonsensical B-Roll I’ve ever seen in a professionally-done feature film.
This movie asks us to take Hamlet– a play, admittedly, dominated by men– and asks us, “What if instead of giving Hamlet interiority, they gave no one interiority? Huh? What if Hamlet was a terrible and obtuse play with no nuance? Now isn’t that radical?” Though Ophelia (played by Ridley) is very much centered in this movie, we’re never actually privy to her inner thoughts, because unlike the source material, this screenplay lacks any credibility whatsoever. The dialogue between Hamlet (George MacKay) and Ophelia is particularly stilted, as what is seemingly framed as flirtatious banter just comes across as awkward to the point of second-hand embarrassment. At one point, Hamlet holds up a jug and says to Ophelia, “Little fish needs water?” which is just so thoroughly cringe-inducing that I physically had to turn away from the screen upon hearing it.
This is not even the most egregious moment present in the scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet. There is, in fact, a prolonged montage that involves one of the most painfully awkward sex scenes I’ve ever seen. I think they were going for slow and sensual, but instead, it just looked like both parties were having a very bad time engaging in uncomfortable, passionless sex. Even then, this couple cannot even take home the “least chemistry” award, as Naomi Watts as Gertrude and Clive Owen as Claudius share a scene in which they seem to suffer collective amnesia and forget how to kiss like humans.
Of course, one cannot bring up Watts and Owen’s performances without at least giving two-thirds of the credit to their truly incredible wigs. Watts wears not just one, but two wigs in this cinematic masterpiece, as she not only plays Gertrude, but her identical twin sister Mechtild, a woodland hermit who brews potions and never brushes her hair. Of course, we all remember Mechtild from Hamlet, right? I mean, who could forget that Gertrude had a twin sister who was a witch? That doesn’t seem like something you’d forget. I suppose Mechtild exists to answer the question, “But just where exactly did Claudius get his poisons?” which was clearly a plothole in Hamlet which needed addressing. Only, in this version, King Hamlet dies by snakebite, so Claudius only retrieves the poisons so as to coat Laertes’s sword. Of course, Claudius knows where Mechtild lives because when they were younger, he knocked her up, then abandoned her, and then accused her of witchcraft when she had a miscarriage and let the whole town run after her with torches and pitchforks. You know, Gertrude’s witch sister Mechtild.
It is also from Mechtild’s collection that Ophelia collects the poison she uses to–spoilers!–fake her own death. Yes, that’s right; she did not really drown herself. In fact, Ophelia is the lone survivor of the entire film. Pregnant with Hamlet’s child even though we don’t really see them do much more than bump their faces and chests together, Ophelia runs off into the wilderness at the end of the movie to raise their daughter alone. But I’m getting ahead of myself. As we see Ophelia come to survive, we also witness a particularly epic fight scene between Norway and Denmark wherein Norway basically stabs everyone in the throne room even though it is perfectly evident that the King is dead. Yes, it is evident that he is dead because he has a giant sword stabbed through him, which is quite possibly one of the only good scenes– and revisions– from this entire movie. Gertrude plunging his sword through his heart and through the back of his chair is actually quite epic, and cinematically satisfying, if thematically pointless.
Ophelia even says, winking to the audience, “Not every story must end in a battle,” as if Shakespeare was a hack who dabbled in cliches, when the final culmination of the movie is literally a grand fight scene that does not occur in the original play. Of course, this entire movie is an editorialization of the plot of Hamlet, but unlike, say, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the reframing of the central character does nothing to reframe the way we think about Hamlet other than to strip every single character of nuance. Claudius, who is arguably one of Shakespeare’s more boring villains, becomes downright odious in a manner so obvious to any casual observer that it should not even be a question as to whether he murdered his brother. Gertrude, a character whom I’ve long argued has more depth than we accredit her, is just kind of…dumb, as she is neither aware of the machinations around her, nor are they being concealed well enough for her to not be able to notice them. Hamlet, whose cerebral mind gives cause to the entirety of the original play, comes across as downright obtuse (though that may on the part of MacKay, who gives a particularly frustrating performance). And quite possibly weirdest of all, Horatio (Devon Terrell) is turned into a graverobber and aspiring doctor.
Ah yes, good old philosophy student Horatio. Gentle, kind Horatio. Hamlet’s frat-boyish wingman, his suave, masculine, token Pee-Oh-Cee friend with no inner life, who cuts up corpses he steals in the night…Wait, what?? This movie’s treatment of race is, frankly, laughable. I hope it is obvious why having the only substantial role played by a black actor be Horatio immediately raises red flags. Having your character be the “black best friend” stereotype with no intentions of subverting it is the exact kind of white feminist of bullshit I expected from this movie, but this was just laughably lazy.
And speaking of feminism, we must ask ourselves: Is this movie actually good for women? Is it really any more feminist than its source material? In Hamlet, there are two traditionally female roles. In Ophelia, there are still two female roles, as Naomi Watts plays both Gertrude and Gertrude’s witch sister Mechtild who lives in the woods. (Yes, it is necessary that I specify that every single time.) I think this casting choice is particularly funny seeing as I both cannot tell Naomi Watts apart from Nicole Kidman, among a slew of other white woman actors, and think that Naomi Watts is multiple people all the time. (For example, in Mulholland Drive, I confused myself by questioning just how many blonde women there were, and whether I couldn’t tell their faces apart because they were the same person, or because they were blondes who looked alike. It turned out it was the former.)
Whether or not Ophelia truly has agency in Hamlet is a question over which much scholarly debate has been dedicated to answering. Instead of elucidating the nuance found in the original, though, this movie instead elects to just let Ophelia do things, and assumes that the more things she does, the more agency she has. It doesn’t even frame Ophelia’s suicide as being a sexist moment, as Ophelia was fully prepared to kill herself over hearing of Hamlet’s death, but is not driven to madness over the death of her father, nor does she even resent Hamlet for Polonius’s murder. Her madness, like Hamlet’s, is decidedly feigned, though unlike Hamlet, her version of madness is not simply putting on eyeliner and calling it a day– which, yes, is what Hamlet does.
Frankly, I would not be too fussed with this particular Polonius being murdered either, as they seem to share a weirdly sexual bond in this version. I don’t know whether it’s the acting or the direction, but Ophelia seems to have more sexual chemistry with Polonius than she does Hamlet. So, as you can see, I was actually quite relieved when they got to his death, as it meant I was now spared the discomfort of having to see him onscreen again. He’s also, somehow, framed as being an unequivocally good man who gives (supposedly) good advice to Laertes and is a kind and caring father to Ophelia. Again, this movie in its attempt to be subversive only further strips the source material of any possible nuance.
The screenplay is so uninspired it does lead me to believe that someone read the “No Fear Shakespeare” of Hamlet and never doubted it wasn’t the real thing. For example, when Hamlet tells Ophelia to “Get thee to a nunnery,” he is genuinely instructing her to go run away to an abbey where she will be safe in the protection of the nuns there. He literally means a nunnery. Or, Gertrude will say to Ophelia “The lady protests too much,” in a way that is supposed to echo “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” which is, indeed, a famous line for a reason… That reason being that it’s not planted randomly in the script as a reminder that we’re in Hamlet. Literally, it’s a complete non-sequitur. And that’s not to mention the song– oh, the song– which plays at least three times (I lost count) throughout the final act. “Doubt the stars are fire” a woman sings behind a synthy drum beat, referencing the poem in Hamlet specifically designed to sound bad:
Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
Apparently, they didn’t get the memo that this is an (intentionally) shit poem. Apparently, the writers also did not get the memo that Hamlet is not a rom
com. Hamlet still dies, of course, but his progeny lives on, as Ophelia does, ultimately, get herself to that nunnery, whereupon nuns, presumably, help her raise her and Hamlet’s child. And to the matter of Hamlet’s death: Ophelia was there before the duel. Ophelia was Osric. Yes, that’s right; she disguises herself as a boy, is the very person to instigate the match, and yet does nothing to make sure that Hamlet, “the love of [her] life,” is safe. Instead, she just up and leaves to go live in the roving pastures of Denmark. Which sounds very nice, actually, but isn’t really the best message if your intention is to give Ophelia more agency.
In fact, the only time Ophelia takes any sort of initiative that isn’t just due to her being backed into a corner is when a group of men (some white, some not) harass a nameless brown woman, framed as if they are about to gang-rape her. Fortunately, they do not, as Ophelia– sort of– intervenes. We love a white savior! Of course, this movie has nothing to say on race, which is probably a good thing considering that if they had, they would have undoubtedly fucked it up. Instead, they simply cast the occasional actor of color to stand in the background and make Ophelia look good. Much like every other aspect of the production, they are clearly dedicated to telling diverse stories, and yet, only prove that a story should not be told unless you have something to say.
There is more I could say about the flaws of this movie. In fact, I could probably fill an entire dissertation with my criticisms of this film. But ultimately, this movie is not deserving to more than a blip on Harold Bloom’s radar (God, nobody let him see this movie). While appearing glossy and polished (other than the random shots of a gargoyle that looked more in place in an Indian soap than in this particular film), with lovely costumes and elaborate albeit historically-inaccurate set design, Ophelia only truly demonstrates the following: Much like Hamlet’s poetry, while it may seem pretty, even a less than discerning eye can identify it as nothing more than self-indulgent, thematically-pointless drivel.