Ophelia (McCarthy, 2018)

Can we start by all agreeing that Ophelia is the least interesting female character in the entire Shakespearean canon?

The very qualities that make her an important icon for feminists are the things that that make her difficult to embrace as a feminist icon. She is powerless, an afterthought, inconsequential to the characters within the story. She is, in other words, the antithesis of Daisy Ridley’s other iconic character, and no matter how good of an actress Ridley turns out to be eventually, she can’t change the fundamental plot elements of Shakespeare’s play.

Semi Chellas and Lisa Klein could, but…they don’t. Ophelia’s opening speech, more reminiscent of Sunset Boulevard than Hamlet, insists that “many” have told her story. The implication is that by changing the perspective, this telling will illuminate aspects of the tale latent but lost in other versions. Ophelia’s flowers become the mark of her father’s inability to afford other adornments. A “witch” tells Ophelia that she is “wild” and “full of desire.” Hamlet, concerned with her safety, pleads with her to hide among the nuns.

There are some good scenes that re-imagine the characters rather than simply paraphrasing their language. Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and Claudius (Clive Owen) have a relationship driven by discernible emotional motives rather than plot necessities. Laertes (Tom Felton) feels like he has a sibling history with his sister. But at other times, the script reads like a Living Bible translation of Hamlet rather than a new telling of it. “Above all…be true to yourself,” Polonius advises his son.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t an inability to rival Hamlet that sinks Ophelia so much as an inability to match Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Tom Stoppard’s famous play uses a throwaway line from the end of Shakespeare’s play to turn a pair of minor, stock figures into emblems of life’s absurdity and pointlessness. Chellas’s screenplay, for all its changes, doesn’t change Ophelia into anything more recognizable or emblematic than what she is in Shakespeare’s play.

Chellas is credited with writing or co-writing six episodes of Mad Men, beginning with the Season Five episode, “The Other Woman” where Joan (Christina Hendricks) is pressured by her peers to sleep with a client in order to help her ad agency secure their business. Mad Men was hardly my favorite show, but it is interesting, in retrospect, how it shows its two principal female characters fighting for any sort of power or autonomy in a patriarchal world. She is also one of nine (!) people given writing credit for the new Charlie’s Angels reboot due later this year. I’m suddenly a bit more interested in that project after learning of her involvement, but I also wonder, given the merits of Mad Men and Ophelia, whether she might just be better off developing her own characters rather than trying to rewrite preexisting ones.

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