Review: ‘Ophelia’ is an Exercise in Feminist Revisionism


Hamlet, perhaps the most well-known play of all time, has been reinvented for countless performances. Everyone with a high school education knows the tragic story  of the Prince of Denmark. However, Ophelia suggests, the world does not know her story after all. Played by the ever talented Daisy Ridley, Ophelia is painted as a headstrong but sensitive young lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), mother of Hamlet. Though the narrative is true to Shakespeare’s original, director Claire McCarthy shifts the film’s perspective to Ophelia’s and in doing so illustrates her complex, misunderstood inner life. 

Based on a novel retelling by Lisa Klein, film offers insight into her heart and mind  beyond the perceptions of Hamlet and other men in her life. The film is an example how women are working to reclaim their own narratives in art. Ophelia and Gertrude’s relationship is much more central than that of Hamlet and Claudius, and an original character is added into the fold. The Female Gaze awards them with complexity that far out measures their original designs as Both women take charge of their own bodies and experience their own desires. Ophelia rebels against her repression, but it’s not portrayed as immoral, rather understandable. She shows real emotions like grief and confusion for the death of her father at the hand of her lover. She’s more sympathetic than ever before because she behaves like an actual human being, not a two- dimensional object within someone else’s story. 


McCarthy’s revisionist attitude is also a chance to honor women who feel persecuted and stuck, but use their wits to overcome. By seeing Ophelia’s side of things, the context of pivotal moments are changed. Her ‘madness’ is actually an act to speak truth and deceive her enemies, turning the age-old ‘hysterical woman’ trope on its head. The new addition to the play is a witch named Mechtild, another testament to the film’s interest in women whose narratives are only ever seen through male eyes. The witch is literally a mirror image of Gertrude (also played by Watts), being similarly misunderstood and outcast by the world. In the end, Ophelia has the cunning to defy her tragic fate, exploiting how much others underestimate her. After everyone else’s story comes to an end, she gets to have the last laugh.

From a stylistic standpoint, Ophelia does justice to Shakespeare’s classic. Instead of using his words verbatim, it employs clever poetic wordplay to manipulate meaning while remaining recognizable. The film is definitely of YA interest, especially for those looking for an accessible entry point to literature and female figures to identify with. It also embraces extravagant aesthetics, as the elaborate production design and costuming are a feast for the eyes. It’s a beautiful blending of contemporary and traditional that refreshes a well-worn yet beloved tale.