Lisa Klein’s novel Ophelia takes the Wide Sargasso Sea/Mary Reilly route of retelling a familiar story from the viewpoint of an often-marginalised female character – and considers the tragedy of Hamlet from the viewpoint of the prince’s putupon, driven-mad girlfriend (and also his much-maligned mother). Director Claire McCarthy – working from a script by Semi Chellas – isn’t on as rocky ground as the author, in that she only has to compete with film Hamlets from Franco Zeffirelli and Kenneth Branagh rather than being forced to go up against Shakespeare … and the movie gets away with the odd clunky paraphrase (‘don’t borrow any money … or lend it’) of well-known verse while leaving all the best-remembered soliloquies and plot turns offstage (comparisons with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead also come up). Fan fiction-like embroidery answers a few questions about the set-up at Elsinore few literary scholars have troubled with, like who exactly provides all the poisons necessary for the murders in the plot … why Yorick ended up in that grave well before his expected time … how long has whatever complication it is been going on between Gertrude, Claudius and her husband … and, late in the day, why exactly Osric is so effeminate? Admirably, the film manages to come up with a finale which is even more violent and corpse-littered than Shakespeare’s scenario, with an impressive aerial tracking shot over the bloody mess left in the wake of the final duel (this Norwegian invasion involves more savagery than speechifying). One major audacious deviation from Shakespeare’s text gives Gertrude a really splendid bit of gory business.
It opens with a Millais-influenced vision of red-haired Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) floating face-up, and a Sunet Blvd.-like narration that goes back to before the opening of the play, with the dirty-faced daughter of Polonius (Dominic Mafham) getting selected by Gertrude (Naomi Watts) to join a colourblind-cast crew of ladies in waiting led by mean girl Cristiana (Daisy Head). This Ophelia resents being shut out of the castle library, but learns to read. Gertrude, an outsider with twin sister Mechtild lurking in the woods and shunned as a witch, takes an interest in the girl, who seems more a natural scholar than her own pouting son Hamlet (George MacKay). In this version, it’s Ophelia who sees what she takes for a ghost – though this is a non-supernatural take on the story – and later has a much better reason to feign madness than the infuriating Prince. With Clive Owen in a wig as a thuggish Claudius and Tom Felton simmering as an understandably ticked-off Laertes, there’s the making of a regular Hamlet going on in the background, but this Ophelia is at once the prime victim and the heroine of the story, and go-between for the strange sisters.
The range of influences is fairly remarkable, with moments that echo things as varied as the film version of From Hell (with a bit of historical-literary loopholery) and Army of Darkness (count the drips of potion in the tongue) as well as sundry movie Shakespeares, including a couple of Romeo and Juliets as well as the expected Gloomy Danes and – presumably unintentionally – the porn version For the Love of Ophelia. There’s witch-hunting in the backstory, and an original sin that makes Claudius a bigger villain than Shakespeare paints him, and a key sub-plot involves body-snatching facilitated by an anatomist Horatio (Devon Terrell), but the look of the piece is a bit too much like the revisionist Disney princess epics when Elsinore could do with being a more gothic, ominous location. Ridley and Watts, however, are terrific – getting past what might be called the Edward Lionheart syndrome (‘who else would have the temerity to rewrite Shakespeare?’) and managing to bring life to characters who were written with very significant blanks that make them hard to play. Mackay’s Hamlet has to be muddled and inconsistent – and, in the end, kicked out of his own story – to allow the leading ladies room to make sense, as the Queen and a Lady in Waiting who doesn’t like the wait scheme to keep afloat in a court that’s overrun by foolish, prideful, dangerous men.