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'Ophelia' Is Bold, Feminist & Wholly Modern

'Ophelia' Is Bold, Feminist & Wholly Modern

We all know the tragic story of Shakespeare's Hamlet—the Prince of Denmark, who attempts to avenge his father's name, which leads to the demise of his entire family. One of the victims of Hamlet's bloodlust was Ophelia—the girl he adored and then threw away, choosing to focus instead on his own desires. In the play, Ophelia is poised as a wretched creature, a woman who goes mad after being rejected by the man she loves and drowns in the river. But this is just one perspective, we've never unfurled what happened from Ophelia's perspective. In her new film, named for the titular character, and adapted from writer Lisa Klein's novel, director Claire McCarthy shifts her lens to the girl who died (allegedly) singing to herself in the water.

A lush and gorgeously shot film that transports the viewer back to a past time, this film follows Ophelia (Daisy Ridley,) a willful and bold young girl. Raised by her widowed father Polonius (Dominic Mafham), and beloved by her brother (Tom Felton) —Ophelia doesn't fit in anyway. Barred from gaining an education because of her sex—she's left to her own curious devices until she crosses paths in the castle with Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) one day.

Despite Ophelia's rough and tumble upbringing, Queen Gertrude is intrigued by the young girl, and she promptly takes her under her wing as one of her ladies in waiting. As the years roll forward— Ophelia seems content in her position. Those she's subject to the ire of the other ladies in waiting for her affinity for nature and impoverished background, Gertrude remains solidly in her corner, and Ophelia becomes one of the queen's most trusted confidants.


Upon returning home from school to visit his parents— Prince Hamlet (George McKay) is also very taken with the red-headed beauty— it’s lust at first sight and she begins to fall for him as well. However, this is a tragedy, not a romance. As the young lovers get closer—Gertrude's secrets began to erode the journey they're on. The queen is tormented by the idea of getting older and continually ignored by her husband. As a result, Gertrude finds herself in the arms of her husband's brother, Claudius (Clive Owen). Watts is terrific here as the bored and vain queen who doesn't quite mean to be villainous, but whose selfishness begins to rot her from the inside, outward.

While working overtime to hide her own secrets including a secret marriage and a friendship with a "witch" who lives in the woods, Ophelia discovers Gertrude and Claudius are also hiding things. When the king suddenly dies, and Claudius ascends to the thrown with Gertrude at his side, Ophelia pieces it all together. Though everyone in her life tries to use her as a pawn for their personal gain, from her father to Hamlet—Ophelia never yields. Using her wits and courage, she enacts a subtle plan of attack as Hamlet slowly descends into madness and Claudius becomes more enraged.

Ophelia works so well because though the underly thread of Shakespeare is still wholly present, McCarthy's story, down to the modern music and vibrant colors in the costuming and the setting— is a 21st-century feminist tale about tenacity, will power and gusto. Ridley never falters, and she never needs anyone to come to save her. Quite frankly, she might have been better off had her father refused the queen's offer when Ophelia was just a child. Despite her gender and her position in society—from the moment we meet her, Ophelia never exists for the whims of men. As the film opens, she declares, "It is high time I shall tell you my story myself," and she does. This version of Ophelia's journey is much more insightful than Shakespeare, and the best part is, the film's climax isn't something you'll be expecting.

Ophelia is currently in theaters and Cable/Digital VOD.

Images: IFC Films

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