If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern merited their own retelling of Hamlet, why shouldn’t the play’s tragic leading lady get to share her side of the story too?
That’s the idea behind Ophelia, director Claire McCarthy’s feminist twist on the Bard’s masterpiece, which premiered Monday night at the the Sundance Film Festival. Daisy Ridley stars as the title character, reimagined as a thoughtful and strong-willed young woman who falls for the doomed Danish prince (George MacKay) in an expanded romance that borrows heavily from Romeo and Juliet. Naomi Watts costars as Queen Gertrude, who takes Ophelia under her wing as a lady-in-waiting — from which position the perceptive young woman gets a good view of Elsinore’s dirty politics.
Ridley couldn’t be in Park City for the film’s premiere, but McCarthy and some of the cast, including Watts, MacKay, and Tom Felton (who plays Laertes), took the stage after the screening for a Q&A, much of which focused on the film’s feminist leanings.
“In some ways, it feels like in the original Hamlet, and also in the classic representations of Ophelia, she’s sort of viewed from above, a sort of God’s-eye view, and she’s kind of almost subsumed by nature or somehow sort of consumed by the world around her,” McCarthy said of her approach to the story. “In this version of Ophelia, we wanted to take the camera under the water, we wanted to put Ophelia’s experience inside the drama, we wanted to see her as a part of nature, not just a victim of the world around her.”
And while the film is called Ophelia, the other woman in Hamlet’s life gets a moment in the spotlight too. Screenwriter Semi Chellas, who adapted the script from Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel of the same name, said that the story spoke to her “as a daughter and a woman and a mother.”
“For me, it was a very refreshing way to relive and experience Shakespeare’s most beloved play, and Queen Gertrude has been someone whose character’s always up for interpretation, and I loved that she got to be all things — she’s good one minute and bad the next,” Watts said of her character. “It was great to see that Semi was able to create these fantastic, multidimensional parts of women, because we are many things.”
As a female-driven, female-directed, female-empowering reinterpretation of a classic, Ophelia’s timing is impeccable, a fact that is not lost on the cast. “The idea that we did successfully, hopefully, turn [the play] on its head and drive it through the female point of view just makes it unbelievably relevant because of what’s happening now, today, with movements [like #MeToo and Time’s Up],” Watts said at the end of the Q&A. “These women are coming together in this story — they’re always plotting against each other, but in this case they come together and become so much more powerful, and that’s kind of what’s happening now.”
The audience was enthusiastic, but the reception on Twitter was mixed. Ophelia has not yet been picked up for distribution.