- Peter Byrne
Ophelia Says Me-Too
Ophelia, spurned by Hamlet—“Get thee to a nunnery”—made a sensational aquatic comeback in the middle of the 19th-Century. The Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais painted her drowned in a stream as described by Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Millais did the landscape background by the Hogsmill River at Ewell in Surrey. But it was in his London studio that he inserted Ophelia’s figure. Nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Siddall posed for him dunked in a tub full of water. Millais was painstaking and a very slow worker. Elizabeth contracted pneumonia and needed medical attention. There were doctor’s bills that her father objected to paying and went to law. Millais paid up, slowly, painfully.
The painting was not forgotten. When Laurence Olivier made his film Hamlet in 1948, he reproduced something very much like it. As a master of Shakespeare presentation on stage, he should have known better. Ophelia going under merely illustrated Gertrude’s poignant lines delivered by Eileen Herlie and thereby got in the way of some of the best descriptive poetry in the English language. Olivier’s faux pas did, however, underline the central problem of filming Shakespeare. You must let what’s written—the poetry—tell the story word-for-word or else transmute it into something wordless that delivers the poetry. Illustration is a lesser art, duplication, beside the point, and distracting because visual.
It’s no wonder that Peter Brook’s The Tragedy of Hamlet (2002) was the best rendering of the play on film in our epoch. Brook stripped everything away but the essential words. At the other extreme, Olivier himself admitted that the best Hamlet film he knew was director Grigori Kozintsev’s 1964 Russian version. It covered over Shakespeare’s words with our ignorance of Russian and opened us to the poetry of space, colour, movement and acting. The same was true in their own way of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985), Japanese versions of Macbeth and King Lear.
The novel Ophelia (2006) by Lisa M. Klein offers no new approach. Authors have for a long time been taking lesser characters from classics and recasting them as the central figure in a new work of their own. To remain in the Shakespearian orbit, the Bard himself took heroic Achilles from Homer’s Iliad and presented him as a small-minded brute in Troilus and Cressida. Jean-Luc Godard’s film, King Lear (1987), reimagined the King as Mr Learo adept in mafia-speak and good-old-boy tenderness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990), a movie Tom Stoppard made of his play about the lives of two minor characters in Hamlet, was the sensation of the 47th Venice Film Festival.
Ms Klein’s novel, Ophelia, (she also wrote Lady Macbeth’s Daughter, 2009) is recommended for twelve to fifteen-year-old readers by Amazon. Claire McCarthy’s 2018 movie adaptation also seems made for juveniles confronting puberty. It reflects our current preoccupations. But isn’t that always the case? Shakespeare mocked Homer when Elizabethan culture was strong enough to belittle the Greeks and Romans. Godard filmed at a moment when the inadequacy of language (see Samuel Beckett) was the hot topic on the Rive Gauche. Stoppard reacted to the next item on the debate-of-ideas menu, the Absurd (as explained by Albert Camus).
What preoccupies McCarthy in her movie Ophelia is to create a female figure that is strong and independent from childhood and who achieves what is called agency in a life of courage and peerless morality. Her imagined character manages to accomplish this noble aim. However, you can hear William Shakespeare whimper off-stage, “Why didn’t they leave me out of all this?” Hamlet is not a play for twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds. To pretend otherwise could make the young wary of the Bard for the rest of their lives. Why couldn’t Klein and McCarthy have fought for the admirable cause of equality for women on another field of battle? Anything goes in contemporary writing. They could have set a story when and where they pleased. Why did they do a clumsy carve-up of a 1601 play? We hope it wasn’t simply to exploit the duty to buy a ticket some feel when Shakespeare is on offer.
Actress Daisy Ridley as Ophelia lets us know straight off what to expect, a self-assured, articulate woman in a hubbub of standard Filmland medievalism. No more of the drowned-in-the-fourth-act shrinking-violet Ophelia imagined by the sixteenth-century playwright. This makes for raised eyebrows only if we expected Klein-McCarthy to work within the structure of Hamlet. They chose not to do so while considering some situations of the original too good to ignore. These they administered as a shot in the arm when their script went limp. Pick and choose was their rule.
Their Ophelia begins as a waif. It will give her more kudos when she proves herself a mediaeval self-made-man—-sorry—woman. Forget about her father Polonius being the kingdom’s top counsellor. Here he’s not the original bumbling bourgeois in the double-act with Hamlet, the butt of the Prince’s jokes. That old duffer was tiresome but decent. Ophelia’s redesigned Polonius urges his daughter to get pregnant by Hamlet as a way to enhance his political clout. Pimping Is the word. Shakespeare’s Polonius knew that such a liaison with royalty would be lethal for his career. The change is in line with Klein-McCarthy’s overall message: Men as a species can’t be trusted. Even Hamlet’s buddy, Horatio, (done up as mixed-race for diversity’s sake), though he helps Ophelia, is moonlighting as a grave-robber.
The movie moves into a Harry-Potter world. Males are vastly outnumbered by ladies-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude who herself is given a twin called Mechtild, a part-time witch who dispenses poisons but is not really bad because she has been done down by an evil man, none other than King Claudius, Hamlet’s nemesis. This pantomime villain, Claudius, and a gormless Hamlet make up the male team. Good-sense Ophelia does the best she can with the young prince, gets herself secretly married to him and turns a trick with a potion that brings on temporary death. This sudden incursion into Romeo and Juliet territory for plot twists confirms Klein-McCarthy as comic-book Shakespearians.
To wind up, Queen Gertrude, who has been steered into drugs and nymphomania by—who else but—Claudius, manages to pull herself together with Ophelia’s help and put a sword through, yep, Claudius. Alas, Hamlet dies in the swordplay but not before Ophelia—his lawful wife, remember—got herself pregnant. Years pass. Ophelia is seen in a happy ending as the happiest of mothers with a growing daughter, who, we are confidently informed in something like a publicity message, is the hope of the future.
Does the Klein-McCarthy’s Ophelia then land a blow for female equality? A victory of Me-Too, Stay Woke and Cancel Culture? Difficult to say. But what’s certain is that Ophelia is a third-rate movie that could have been second-rate if it had left Shakespeare R.I.P.
But we mustn’t forget Elizabeth Siddall who in 1852 at nineteen posed drowned among the water lilies for John Everett Millais. Lizzie, as she was known, became further entangled in the Pre-Raphaelites and married Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They called each other Guggums and Gug. He removed the final L from her family name for aesthetic reasons. She died at thirty-two, a laudanum addict.
(Ophelia is available in Italy on Netflix.)