Film & Television

‘Ophelia,’ The No Longer Silent Victim of Denmark’s Game of Thrones

Denmark’s Prince Hamlet, arguably Shakespeare’s most famous, if conflicted, hero, is no stranger to the silver screen. Over the past century-plus, there have been dozens of film adaptations, starting with a gender-bending Sarah Bernhardt, starring in a five-minute excerpt in 1900. Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version, in which he starred and directed, won Academy Awards both for Best Picture and Best Actor. Although it feels a bit overwrought (and Hamlet a bit effeminate) by today’s standards, it gave us the Cliffs Notes summary we may be most familiar with, “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.”

More recently, we’ve seen a 1990 Hamlet by the late Franco Zeffirelli, starring Mel Gibson in a surprisingly well received departure from his roles in Mad Max and Lethal Weapon. This particular version, tailored to a contemporary audience, cut the original text by about half and played up the conflicts, moving the Bard’s moody Hamlet toward the sort of action hero that was more familiar to Gibson’s fans. Although the casting and concept may have raised some eyebrows initially, The New York Times called Zeffirelli’s direction “naturalistic” and “emotionally-charged” and Gibson’s performance “visceral,” insisting that it was “safely beyond ridicule.”

Six years later, Kenneth Branagh directed and starred in a Hamlet based on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s stage production. His version, set in the Victorian era and filmed at Blenheim Palace, includes every word of the stage play, as well as elaborate, star-studded flashbacks. It runs more than four hours, which may be why it was a box office failure despite excellent reviews. 

I’m not going to cover seemingly countless BBC adaptations and filmed stage productions, featuring the likes of Maximilian Schell, Richard Burton, Christopher Plummer, Richard Chamberlain, and Kevin Kline. (Or the Derek Jacobi version, which I watched from my freshman dorm room on a 12-inch black and white TV with a fellow drama major who ended up dating my roommate instead of me. Much to my dismay, unlike Hamlet he had no trouble making up his mind.)

The point is this. When it comes to film and television, Hamlet has certainly had his say. Ophelia, his ill-fated love interest, not so much.

Until now.

The new costume drama Ophelia, directed by Claire McCarthy and written by Semi Chellis, based on the novel by Lisa Klein, tells the famous story from Hamlet’s on-again, off-again girlfriend’s point of view. And then it turns it on its head.

The character of Ophelia (portrayed onscreen in the past by fine actresses such as Jean Simmons, Helena Bonham Carter, Kate Winslet, Julia Stiles, and even Marianne Faithfull) is by far the most pathetic victim in a play literally littered with dead bodies. In love with Prince Hamlet, and spurred on by her father Polonius and Queen Gertrude, she pushes the reluctant hero to the point of cruelty (his, not hers), eventually goes mad, and drowns herself. Gertrude, who witnesses the maiden’s death, tells Ophelia’s brother, “One woe doth tread upon another’s heel, /So fast they follow. —Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.”

Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like a while they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.

McCarthy saw the classic portrayal of Ophelia as a challenge. “This was an opportunity to capture her point of view and her particular insights about the dynamics around her without having to make her feel passive or a victim like she was in the original play,” she explained to Slash Film. “I think there’s a contemporary discussion about it and a discussion about representation, but there’s also questions of how far we can push that because Ophelia is low status, she’s not the power player in the world of the story, she’s often observing. So how do you have that feel like she has currency and interest, how can we remain with her even if she’s not the one compelling the narrative? How do we make her feel like the subject, not the object?”

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