When it first came out, Ophelia (2018) was called a feminist take on Hamlet. That’s not a bad read of the movie because it does re-tell Shakespeare’s play from the point of view of its female characters, mostly Ophelia but also Gertrude. Hamlet is a minor figure around whom events circle but who doesn’t get any of the grand soliloquies and such that the character is known for.
Daisy Ridley of Star Wars fame stars as a rebellious Ophelia who’s taken under Queen Gertrude’s (Naomi Watts) wing as a lady-in-waiting. There’s a bit about Ophelia not being nobility and the other ladies-in-waiting are, which struck me as odd since Ophelia’s father Polonius is chief councillor to the king so he’s well-positioned in some way. She’s also shown to be a bit of a tomboy — running around in the woods and such — and she likes to read, which is either forbidden or discouraged for women. Thus, a non-traditional girl for the time and place.
Oh and where and when is this story set? Unclear, much like the original play! We’re in Elsinore in Denmark, not that anyone or anything is noticeably Danish, and the period is just vaguely medieval. The costumes have a whiff of historical styling but in a fantasy, pretty pretty princess fashion. There are obvious nods to Pre-Raphaelite art, which is, of course, a 19th-century version of the Middle Ages. Costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini confirms this influence in an interview with Vogue, saying:
“Most significant were probably the paintings of John William Waterhouse; the palette of the great British paintings by J.M.W. Turner; and the opera of Macbeth that Piero Tosi designed in the ’50s was another important reference for me.”
The film opens with a direct reference to Pre-Raphaelite art with Ophelia “drowning” in the river surrounded by flowers and lily pads.
The plot subverts this image — and Shakespeare’s plot — in significant ways. The movie is adapted from a young-adult novel by Lisa Klein but apparently the film goes even farther in changing the story from Hamlet. And even though I’m a super-big English lit geek, I enjoyed the twists, they worked for me, and made sense within this film. Gertrude actually becomes a more nuanced tragic character than Ophelia, and maybe since I’m on the other side of 50, I appreciate that more than I might have when I first read Hamlet waaaay back in high school.
The influence of Pre-Raphaelite artist John William Waterhouse is seen everywhere but especially in the main blue-green gown Ophelia wears. He painted several “Ophelias” in blue-ish gowns that the costume designer may have considered.
Massimo Cantini Parrini gives all the women very beautiful, languid, elegant garments. If nothing else, this is an incredibly beautiful movie to look at. He told Vogue:
“I wanted the clothes to express femininity as very fluid, exalting the women at the center of the film as strong characters. With the story’s historical period, it was important that the audience could get enchanted by the clothes enough to imagine the sensuality breathing below the surface.”
And while this movie doesn’t declare itself to take place in a particular year, Massimo Cantini Parrini did his historical research:
“When I face a new film, whether [it’s] contemporary or historical, the first thing I do is visit museums in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe if I can, looking for inspiration, looking for the idea. It is only through a stark concept that my vision materializes … to bring out the best possibilities, and avoid the trivial or stereotypes, to land on something unique. My job is not just to costume a character, but also to dress an actress in a manner that helps her physically tell the story.”
He was also on a budget, which does not show at all!
“On Ophelia, I had barely six weeks of preparation before the shooting started. Managing a movie that was so aesthetically rich, plus with a stellar range of cast to serve, was not easy. … We had a quite limited budget, but thankfully I am experienced at period pictures — and at short timetables!”
Have you seen Ophelia? How do you feel about messing around with classic literature?