A Brief Study of Hamlet and a Review of Ophelia Starring Daisy Riley

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Ophelia is the tragic female lead role in Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, (written by the bard between 1599 and 1601) commonly known as Hamlet.

The male lead Hamlet is perhaps one of the most sought-after parts for any actor. In fact not to play the Prince, for an actor, could be deemed as a failure in their career, as cited by Richard Griffith as Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1987), ‘It is the most shattering experience of a young man's life when one morning he awakes and quite reasonably says to himself: 'I shall never play the Dane.’ Yet many young men have awoken in delight, knowing that they have played the Dane, such as Laurence Olivier, Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce, former Dr Who David Tennant, Mad Max himself Mel Gibson and many more across the stage and screen. Hamlet is the original angry young man as he is cynical, subversive, possibly insane yet creative, thoughtful, and intelligent. A complex and weighty role that any thespian will enjoy.

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Like Hamlet, Ophelia is a multifaceted role, the beautiful, naïve, and pure soul, who men try to control, which often results in misplaced loyalty for her. In addition, to play Ophelia is often seen as the pinnacle of any actress’ career, and many great names have played her. Julia Stiles, Kate Winslet, Marianne Faithfull, Helena Bonham Carter, who was Ophelia to Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, to name a few. In addition, in-between fighting the dark side with her lightsaber, Daisy Ridley, known globally as Rey in the recent Star Wars trilogy, portrays Ophelia in an original 2018 film, named after the female lead. Directed by Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City, Cross Life) and based on American author Lisa Klein’s 2005 novel, which tells the story of Hamlet from Ophelia’s viewpoint.

The plot of Hamlet is simple yet effective and has influenced many plots for plays, novels, films, and TV series ever since. Hamlet is a dashing young man, who leaves the castle Elsinore and the kingdom of Denmark to study in a university overseas, only to return to find that his father the king, has died and that his mother, Gertrude, has remarried his uncle Claudius, who is now not only his stepfather but the king of Denmark. Hamlet falls into depression, then seeks revenge after he sees and speaks to the ghost of his father, who informs him that he was murdered by the villain of the play, Claudius. Hamlet turns his despair into resentment and insanity as he seeks retribution for his father’s murder. The innocent man returning home, and who changes his personality due to family and social circumstances, is similar to Michael Corleone in The Godfather who didn’t wish to become a Don, or the man seeking revenge for his father’s murder is on a par to Sean Wallace (Joe Cole: Peaky Blinders, Pure) from Sky’s Gangs of London. Yet neither are a  plagiarism of Hamlet, just inspired by key elements of the plot.

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Hamlet’s insanity has been the subject of in-depth debate for many years, from scholars to actors, whether he is faking it or not. Irrespective if Hamlet is mad or not, one thing is certain, on his journey in seeking revenge, he is highly cruel to perhaps the only person who genuinely loves him, Ophelia. For she feels the full brunt of Hamlet’s misogynism, heightened by his mother marrying his uncle when telling her the classic line ‘Get thee to a nunnery’.

This is a double entendre, as Hamlet may be telling her to become a nun or to become a prostitute, as nunnery was an Elizabethan slang word for a brothel. Whatever Hamlet meant; he broke Ophelia’s heart. Soon after she falls from a willow tree into the brook by the castle and dies by drowning. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude states it was an accident to her son upon hearing the news, as the scene is never seen in Hamlet, whilst a cleric at her funeral states to her brother Laertes, it was suicide which infuriates him. Identical to Hamlet’s madness there is the question, did Ophelia commit suicide? Which has spawned many academic essays over the years, as some debate it was symbolic of her final act of control, by taking her life or whilst others state that Ophelia had allowed circumstances to dictate her life, therefore she permitted the water to submerge her. Furthermore, her drowning in the brook has been the subject of many paintings over the years, for instance, Sir John Everett Millai’s mesmerising portrait of Ophelia (1851/52), an oil painting of the young lady, face-up in the brook, clutching onto flowers. Ophelia seems to be singing before she meets her fate.

ophelia daisy riley hamlet shakespeare sir john everett millai

In the film Ophelia, the opening shot is a beautiful cinematic version of Millai’s masterpiece, which draws the viewer in, before Daisy Ridley as Ophelia narrates, ‘You may think you know my story. Many have told it. It has long passed into history... into myth.’. This straight away asks a new question in the study of Hamlet, did Ophelia die?

Ophelia (2018) starts as a flashback with the young Ophelia (Mia Quiney), and her older brother, the young Laertes (Calum O'Rourke), going to Elsinore Castle for a celebration with their father Polonius (Dominic Mafham: Land Girls, Kingdom), who is the Lord Chamberlain to the monarchy.

The cheeky Ophelia interrupts the banquet, much to the concern of Polonius. However, Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts: Mulholland Drive, King Kong), finds the child endearing, so much so that she makes Ophelia one of her ladies in waiting. This is where Ophelia briefly sees a young Hamlet (Jack Cunningham-Nuttall) for the first time.

Fast forward a few years later, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley: Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, Silent Witness) has blossomed into a beautiful woman who, due to her independent thinking and confidence, stands out from the rest of the ladies in waiting. As she walks about Elsinore Castle, doing her duties, she witnesses the emerging affair between Queen Gertrude and Claudius, sinisterly played to perfection by Clive Owen (Sin City, King Arthur) as the antagonist. with a lust for power and women. Ophelia is the first to know that ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. Her journey into madness, witchcraft, loyalty, love, loss and rejuvenation is about to commence, as the film morphs into the classic tragedy play, with Hamlet (George MacKay: 11.22.63, 1917) returning from university, yet this time from a whole new viewpoint, which is intriguing, intelligent, and enjoyable.

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No one, from Ridley to the author Klein has tried to rewrite Hamlet. Instead, their agenda is to present a more in-depth understanding of Ophelia and how she can survive in a male-dominated environment. I believe they have been successful in their execution, as this fresh approach shows Ophelia’s strengths as well as her flaws. Additionally, the filmmakers from cast to crew, reveal how rotten the kingdom of Denmark really is.

Ridley takes to the role with skill, determination, and authenticity, as she gives a powerful and passionate performance, as well as revealing the many layers of Ophelia’s personality. Yet Ridley does not steal the scenes, and I am sure that was her intention. Be it Watts, Owen, Mafham, or Mackey (who with ease, could play Hamlet as the title role) have all studied and interpreted their parts, to give robust and sincere recitals. To me, the whole cast was on song, and there was not a weak link amongst them. Beautifully shot in Krivoklát and its Castle in the Czech Republic, the cinematography adds to this entertaining, lively, and stylish take on Hamlet. Lovers and fans of Shakespeare and historical drama will enjoy and appreciate Ophelia.

Read 375 times Last modified on Wednesday, 13 May 2020 11:13
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