Film & Television

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

Casting was an effective strategy toward McCarthy’s goal. Ophelia stars intergalactic “it-girl” Daisy Ridley, best known as Jedi-in-training Rey in the most recent Star Wars films. Beautiful in a long red wig here, she still conveys the strength and grit that help her face and fight Kylo Ren, heir to Darth Vader. 

Ophelia opens with an image of the heroine lying back in the pond, ringed in flowers with her elaborate gown and luxurious tresses floating and framing her. It is a stunning interpretation of Sir John Everett Millais’s pre-Raphaelite painting. The heroine’s voiceover assures us that while we may think we know her story, she will now tell it herself. We are then transported back to her childhood; she’s a ragamuffin running too freely through Elsinore Castle, where her father is a court sycophant. The Queen (Naomi Watts) takes an interest in her, and despite protests from the young tomboy, Ophelia is cleaned up, decked out, and raised as a lady-in-waiting. She lacks the other ladies’ noble backgrounds, but is far more intelligent, soon picking up on the sexual dynamics between Gertrude and her brother-in-law Claudius (Clive Owen), and catching the eye of Prince Hamlet (George MacKay), home from university. From there we move into the familiar territory of Shakespeare’s original. More or less. Or, perhaps I should say, “More, then less.”

Like the opening sequence, many scenes are gorgeous to see, sumptuous in costumes and sets. And the feminist perspective inherent in giving Ophelia the dual role of hero and narrator is both interesting and relevant to today’s ongoing conversations about women, their rights and roles. Given the girl’s sad ending in the classic Hamlet, any twists and turns that give her some semblance of authority over her own fate are welcome. But, from about halfway through Ophelia, the energy changes and the film, not just the court of Claudius and Gertrude, runs off the rails. 

First of all, screenwriter Chellis (and, I assume novelist Klein) borrow heavily from the Bard’s other plays. There’s a witch living in the woods surrounding Elsinore and we suddenly move into Macbeth territory. Then a young couple elopes and is married in secret by a country friar, spends a single wedding night together, and we’re transported to Verona. And, even more significant (and, shall we face it, far-fetched) allusions to Romeo and Juliet are embroidered as various characters take advantage of a poison that simulates death. The nods to other plays in Shakespeare’s folios are fun to spot, but they detract from the already complicated story at hand.

Less enjoyable is the veritable explosion of violence toward the end of the movie. It felt as if McCarthy went home sick one day and was replaced by the people responsible for the infamous “Blood Wedding” scene from Game of Thrones. Shakespeare, who was famous for putting much of the warfare and violence of his plays offstage, would have been astounded by the sheer volume of blood shed. Or, perhaps he would have been thrilled. Alas (poor Yorick), I was not.

The bulk of Ophelia is truly beautiful to watch. The conceit is clever and the cast is fairly strong (Watts and Owen tend to chew the scenery; and MacKay seems a bit of a milquetoast next to Ridley). As costume dramas go — especially in this, the season of superheroes and animated reboots — you could fare worse than spending your time here.

But if the premise is to give Ophelia her say and a more heroic, if not necessarily wholly happy, ending, then I would have forgone some of (all right, most of ) the gore. Then again, I have no investment in the movie. Feminist Shakespeare geeks like me are going to want to see it, despite its nearly 50/50 mixed reviews. The bloody scene that made me roll my eyes and wrinkle my nose may expand Ophelias audience and increase its box office.

After all, Game of Thrones is over.


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