The 2018 film ‘Ophelia’ is based on the original ‘Hamlet’ character who was the protagonist of Lisa Klein’s novel. The film tells the story of ‘Hamlet’ but from Ophelia’s perspective. The film follows Ophelia’s life from when she was a child, who first entered court, to her whereabouts at the end of the play. While remaining faithful to the source material, the film deviates from it significantly. Ophelia is generally considered to be a side character in the original play, one that exudes excessive femininity. Being a woman of the Elizabethan age the plot lines and themes that surround her focus on her sexuality, honour and madness.
The film opens with Ophelia floating in a lake. This is probably Ophelia’s most iconic scene in the play, even though it is only referenced by Gertrude and not actually seen. Gertrude’s speech, recounting Ophelia’s death, has been the subject of many paintings, by the likes of John Everett Millais and John William Waterhouse. Much like these paintings, Daisy Ridley dons red hair throughout the film. This immediately makes her standout at court, and as a child, she is forced to be washed and wear fine clothes. The court domesticates her, implying that, before entering court, Ophelia was not the feminine beauty that is depicted in the play. Her dancing is also likened to a ‘goat’… which does not paint the most feminine picture.
Ophelia is regularly seen with her hair open, perhaps a reference to her infamous mad scene in Act 4 scene 5. In Elizabethan theatre, open, messy hair was associated with madness and acted as a sign of sexual discordancy.
From the get go, Ophelia’s affiliations with nature are made explicit. She is frequently seen swimming in a lake, and runs to nature for solace. This is where she meets Hamlet as an adult, when he returns from his studies at the University of Wittenberg. She is mocked for wearing flowers in her hair. Ophelia’s later use of flowers in her mad scene are referenced here. Ophelia’s identification with nature emphasise her untameable and free spirit, as well as her child-like innocence. This innocence is further emphasised by her reading of romantic texts. It appears that she dreams about romance and love, and its only upon Hamlet’s return that these wishes are fulfilled.
In the play, Ophelia is more of a pawn used by men for their own gain. For example, Claudius uses her to assess Hamlet’s feigned madness. However in the film, she has more agency and witnesses key plot developments. She witnesses an adulterous kiss between Gertrude and is sent by Gertrude to collect tonic from a local witch named Mechtild. It is Ophelia that also sees the Ghost first – even though it is just Claudius in disguise. She becomes embroiled within the politics of Denmark from the beginning of the film, and is probably more aware of this than her original counterpart.
Ophelia also has a subtle feminist edge. While rejecting Hamlet’s advances, as she recognises that he is a Prince, Hamlet references her frailty. In response she notes that it is more likely that the trait of frailty runs within families, not exclusively womankind. Hamlet’s winning over of Ophelia in the film proves that he genuinely cares for her, something that is questioned in the original play.
The film diverts from the play with Hamlet and Ophelia’s marriage. They marry outside in a field, again referencing how comfortable Ophelia is within nature. The film also tackles the infamous ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene, 3.1. Ophelia is aware that she is being used by Claudius to assess Hamlet’s sanity, and she is aware that Hamlet is playing up to it. He is concerned for her welfare, and advises her to flee Denmark. In the play he is unsympathetic towards her, and even though Hamlet might be faking his assault of Ophelia, there is no apology or repentance afterwards.
Hamlet puts his plan in motion when he engineers the Dumb Show, a play that re-enacts the murder of his father by Claudius. It is here that he catches ‘the conscience of the King,’ meaning that effectively, he confirms Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet lunges to kill Claudius, but it is Ophelia that stops him – again, she is central to the action. In the play, Hamlet stops himself from killing Claudius when he hears Claudius praying for forgiveness, and absolving his sins.
The next chain of events occurs quickly. Hamlet is carted off to England, and is thought to be killed by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ophelia is forced to wed another, and when she refuses she is thrown in jail. Ophelia here pretends to be mad, to elicit sympathy from Gertrude, which proves effective. This again emphasises Ophelia’s agency and ingenuity. When she hands out her flowers, she dishes out rue, which is for remembrance. Whereas in the play her choice of flowers are thought to be the results of madness, the film makes it clear that Ophelia is being strategic, as she subtly insults the King and Queen through her use of foliage.
Ophelia then fakes her death, by taking a strong sleeping draught. There is no mention of the ‘willow’ and Ophelia’s fall from it, but like in the original play, it is through Gertrude that we discover that Ophelia has died in a lake. Horatio then digs up Ophelia’s grave, finding her alive. After learning the truth from Mechtild, she returns to Hamlet to tell him that Claudius is indeed guilty of killing King Hamlet. Ophelia resolves this instrumental plot thread, which heightens her importance in the film.
The portrayal of Gertrude also impacts Ophelia. Naomi Watts plays Gertrude and Mechtild, and the two characters are sisters. Mechtild was considered a witch because she had a miscarriage. The death of her baby was thought to be the work of the devil, and so she was to be burned at the stake. Interestingly, the child was Claudius’. However, she faked her death and escaped. What does this mean, that both characters are played by Watts? Perhaps it is two different extremes of womanhood, the outcast and the queen. Ophelia inhabits some sort of space between the two, as the future king of Denmark’s wife, and the fleeing outcast. Unlike in the play, where Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned wine, she kills Claudius. She stabs him with a sword which pushes through the back of his throne. The white throne and spurt of blood may be a reference to penetration. This reverse act of penetration, as female penetrates the male, is dangerous and deadly to Claudius. Gertrude reclaims her narrative, in an act that appears to reclaim her sexuality. It is only after this that Gertrude poisons herself. She dies in control of her story, as does Ophelia. The difference is, Ophelia lives.
Ophelia notes that she ‘did not lose my way to vengeance.’ By the end of the film, and play, someone is baying for the blood of someone else. Throughout the play, Ophelia was never vengeful, and the film retains this key character trait. It is her inherent goodness that saves her. Ophelia gives birth to a daughter, and lives with her in a convent. Ophelia is safe in a female-dominated environment, and it is here that she is able to flourish. Gertrude is starved of this. The film is suggesting that it is men who use and corrupt women, it is their fault that women fall.
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