Why do the hens peck at you?
A lover distraught and driven to madness after her father’s murder at the hand of the man she loves, himself destined to die by order of his uncle: Denmark’s unjust and power-hungry king. This is Ophelia’s fate within William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a woman used to mourn and incite violence amongst men ruled by grief, ego, and righteousness. Why wouldn’t someone choose to therefore reimagine her legacy away from such abuse in text with nothing but death in her future? Novelist Lisa Klein does exactly this by creating a new subplot steeped in “witchcraft” and possessed with as much betrayal amongst the women as the men. Targeted at teen girls to embrace empowerment rather than manipulated sacrifice, its story introduces a heroine where there had only been a hero.
This is a crucial aspect to Claire McCarthy‘s Ophelia (as adapted by Semi Chellas) because it intentionally plays into the cinematic YA genre too. Adults expecting some grand Shakespearean drama like so many films before it might thus be disappointed when the climax arrives under the propulsive battle cry of “Break of Day” as sung by lead actor Daisy Ridley. It’s the most obviously “skewed to a young audience” moment of the whole, but the way it also re-colors what came previously helps expose how much better everything works under that façade. Watching McCarthy’s movie from the eyes of a teenager sick of having to constantly languish in men’s hormonal bloodlust during English class deliberately renders the additional intrigue into resonant melodrama as opposed to profound literary gravitas.
So take those reviews that derisively dismiss the film as fan-fiction with a grain of salt if they’re judging the work’s genesis as opposed to its success. That’s not to say the latter is present without reservation, only that fan-fiction isn’t itself inherently “lesser than” when compared to an original source. That its change of vantage doesn’t remain faithful to the action a la “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” shouldn’t automatically make it disposable either. I’d argue it’s just as inventive to retain all the major plot points while straying as far from the text as it does since it’s playing with the idea of storytelling itself and the degradation, absence, or addition of information depending on an author’s identity. Who does the orator hold as his/her star?
When it’s Ophelia (Ridley), Hamlet (George MacKay) becomes more boyish and impulsive—a lovelorn suitor struggling to reconcile his feelings for her and the chaos surrounding his family. So while he’s left pining off-screen, she’s allowed to shine on it as a headstrong woman whose wits and boldness caught the eye of a queen (Naomi Watts‘ Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother). Her education (thanks to brother Laertes, played by Tom Felton) helps her stand out from the other ladies-in-waiting. They see her as peculiar, mocking how she falls short of their wealth-bought femininity to thus prove less appealing for marriage in the process. Gertrude conversely sees it as strength with Ophelia serving as a kindred spirit to her own former ambitions before being cast aside in her husband’s mind by war.
That connection is why Ophelia is allowed to become the most trusted member of the Queen’s entourage and ultimately learn a secret nobody but she knows. It involves the “witch” Mechtild, a tragic soul isolated in the forest who mixes potions that both heal and destroy. And while her medicine for Gertrude is the initial reasoning for her character to appear, it’s not long before we realize the circumstances that have left Mechtild on the fringes of society are just as intertwined with the crown’s succession as anything else. It’s through her presence that Ophelia discovers Hamlet’s uncle’s (Clive Owen‘s Claudius) treachery, telling his nephew so he can feign madness and conjure the new king’s confession. It’s also through Mechtild’s concoctions that death proves a means towards life.
To say more would be to ruin this new trajectory and that would be a disservice since it’s what the film offers most. Klein and company aren’t interested in focusing on Shakespeare’s Ophelia when they have this chance to create a version of the character who’s able to use a patriarchal kingdom’s blind spots against them. They give her agency to choose her own happiness and learn from the cautionary tale right in front of her that is Gertrude. Ophelia becomes worthy of love not because she’s meant to facilitate it, but because she has it to give. The same goes for her Queen too—a first marriage ruined by man’s desire for power numbing her from realizing a second union possesses no love at all.
The production value is high with a stellar cast rounded out by memorable supporting players from Ophelia’s jealous rival Cristiana (Daisy Head) to Hamlet’s trusted confidant Horatio (Devon Terrell). The men lacking three-dimensionality is thus intentional since they’re now just pawns to begrudge (Hamlet’s father for shortsightedness), despise (Claudius’ duplicity and irredeemable opportunism), and pity (Dominic Mafham as Ophelia’s father Polonius toeing the line between self-respect and obedience). Even Laertes is pushed aside as a lovingly cautious brother whose anguish is used to advance violent plots of others. Hamlet is the exception simply because he has the screen-time to manufacture a personality. Will it be love or pride that finally rules his heart, though? Will he honor Ophelia’s plans towards happiness or fall prey to his family’s curse?
So while the men go through their motions, the women shine as complex characters struggling to transcend their place in a world that holds them as second-class citizens. Even Cristiana surprisingly has more to do than merely scowl or smirk whenever Ophelia rises or falls below her own station. Watts and Ridley are obviously the bigger focal points, however, with the former finding herself the victim of a war waging between heart and mind when it comes to independence and comfort while the latter fully grasps the reality that she must always place her own wellbeing ahead of any man since what he says is often at odds with what he’ll do. As the men mindlessly kill each other to express their vengeful might, the women strive for heroic redemption.
 Daisy Ridley as “Ophelia” in Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
 Daisy Ridley as “Ophelia” and George MacKay as “Hamlet” in Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
 Daisy Ridley as “Ophelia” and Naomi Watts as “Gertrude” in Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.