Shakespeare’s Women Run the Story in Ophelia (2018)


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.

Ophelia (2018)
1851-52 - Ophelia by John Everett Millais

1851-52 – Ophelia by John Everett Millais, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Ophelia (2018)

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.

1894 - Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

1894 – Ophelia by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

Ophelia (2018)
1910 - Ophelia by John William Waterhouse

1910 – Ophelia by John William Waterhouse, via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Ophelia (2018) Ophelia (2018)

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.”

Ophelia (2018)

Gertrude in pale colors when she first takes up with Claudius.

Ophelia (2018)

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!”

Ophelia (2018)

There’s an elaborate masquerade scene where Ophelia & Hamlet’s interactions are reminiscent of the scene in the 1968 Romeo & Juliet movie.

Ophelia (2018)

Most of the court ladies wear makeup instead of actual masks.

Ophelia (2018)

For her wedding to Claudius, Gertrude wears royal purple, plus a veil & this cage-like headdress.

Ophelia (2018)

The wedding is the only time we see women in veils (which would have been historically very common).

Ophelia (2018)

And yes, there is an ‘Ophelia goes mad’ scene, & she’s wearing a typical pale gown.



Have you seen Ophelia? How do you feel about messing around with classic literature?

19 Responses

  1. Colleen

    I’m a Hamlet fan, so I skipped it once I realized they completely changed the story.

  2. Natasha Rubin

    I thing being a pre-Raphaelite fantasy works for this story, personally. It’s a loose retelling of Hamlet, which was a loose retelling of a Scandinavian legend that probably had very little historical truth to begin with, so it’s definitely Fantasy Medieval Denmark rather than anything that’s supposed to reflect actual history. And I think it makes sense for the costumes to reflect that.

  3. ScreenFashions

    I love this movie. The jewelry and headdresses remind me of the Byzantine mosaics of Justinian and Theodora. Too early for the middle ages, but pretty! And the soundtrack is excellent.

    • SarahV

      This! This s a lot like Glenn Close’s Gertrude’s regal habiliment in the Mel Gibson Hamlet. Very Byzantine, and not all ‘Nordic’ not that I have any idea what a Danish queen would wear in the Middle Ages.

  4. Kathryn MacLennan

    Damn it! I want every single one of those dresses! I am a sucker for the Pre-Raphaelite look.

  5. Lily Lotus Rose

    I was vaguely aware of this movie, but was non-plussed about it until this post. I definitely plan to check this out. So, thanks! In college the theater department did a one-act festival and one of the plays was The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (or something like that), your summary of this movie seems to be along the same lines. Really, everything looks lovely in these pictures except for that unfortunate wig on Clive Owens’s head. Also, Daisy Ridley does not convince as a redhead.

    • Susan Pola Staples

      I am also a lover of all things Pre-Raphaelite and I missed this but will definitely try to see it

  6. Al Don

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I don’t mind offering the contrary opinion: I thought it was terrible. A juvenile reworking, with prosaic on-the-nose writing that talks down to the audience. Like The King it ventures to ask, “What if you like Shakespeare’s stories but hate good writing?” Very by-the-numbers filmmaking in terms of film language. A ripe Clive Owen in a bad wig, whose Claudius wears his villainy on his sleeve (because nuance is for suckers!), Naomi Watts not leaving an impression despite being handed more material, and Daisy Ridley whose screen charisma has somehow already evaporated. Odd because I think she’s great in the new Star Wars. I think George MacKay might have been a fine Hamlet in another production.

    The twists you could see coming a mile away. “Don’t look at the witch’s face.” Why not? You bloody well know why, we’ve all seen Sleepy Hollow (1999).

    I’m all for revisionist takes and love the Pre-Raphaelites. Credit where it’s due, at least it’s colorful in contrast to most modern Medieval films.

    Honest opinion: if you want a Hamlet reworking/update done well: absolutely skip this. Probably skip Hamlet Goes Business (1987) – the good bits aren’t enough to recommend the entire film. See Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) and The Bad Sleep Well (1960). Accept no substitutes.

  7. Kathy

    I loved the YA book like Lisa Klein and I was so excited to hear it was getting an adaptation. Lisa Klein has a PhD in Renaissance English poetry and she did extensive research to add so much Renaissance courtly details to create fit an interesting story into the existing parameters of Hamlet. I was deeply disappointed by this movie. The aesthetic was gorgeous but none of the nuance of the original story was there.

  8. Ashanti

    See now THIS works perfectly! The fact that they choose a style and aesthetic to base the costuming around, stuck to it, and being clear on what they’re emulating while not being entirely accurate work but still beautiful and pleasing to the eyes is perfect. This is the type of artistic liberty I love.

  9. Milli

    I watched the movie and had the constant feeling that the movie should have said it straight up that its more a “fix-it” fanfiction rather than a “my story” perspective it said on the trailer. Would have been easy to digest some of those cheesy twists honestly ( not gonna spoil ) . It works better as Hamlet inspo fantasy more than anything and Ridley ‘s acting beside the monologue is atrociously dull ( watch it for Naomi Watts and the guy playing Hamlet. He tried his best considering the story wants to sabotage all the compelling male characters to make Female ones look better. Which seems more like an insult than a compliment if you ask me )
    I do agree though, costume wise it was amazing. I finally felt like i am watching a well and good European medieval inspired story and people must have enjoyed colors and decorations like we do, not mucking about it dirt like GoT or Knightfall did ( honestly since i read asoiaf books, i know this is what Martin wanted his story to look like not the dark lighting dirt fest). The only disagreement on how “you cannot feel the budget” would be on hair. You can tell Ophelia’s hair is unnatural red wig and a bad one at that in SEVERAL scenes. It really does take you out from the story for sec .

  10. Cristina

    I LOVE Pre Raphaelite art! May need to watch this just for the visuals!

  11. becklaxton55312570

    My goodness, at the back of the pic of Ophelia going mad is what looks like a chap holding a theorbo – a sixteenth-century instrument that’s like a giant lute with extra strings. That’s cool – wonder if anyone actually plays it??

  12. Aleko

    This looks lovely. The costuming isn’t in any way historical, but because it’s totally coherent and internally-consistent, it convinces. (D*mn it, why can so many English-speaking costume designers and directors not get this principle, when the Italians have known it and been demonstrating it for literally generations?) In this respect it reminds me a bit of Janty Yates’ costuming of Kingdom of Heaven: Yates said openly that she hadn’t worked from real 12th-century dress but from images of 19th-century French medievalism, specifically the Salle des Croisades at Versailles. And because she was consistent with that – and also because that’s the origin of the kind of illustrations of the Middle Ages we all grew up with in picture books – it’s convincing to the eye, even if your head knows different.