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The Female Perspective in Film, Part Two: 'Ophelia'

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In this two-part Cinema Junkie podcast I look to the female perspective in film. In part two, I explore the film "Ophelia," which reimagines Shakespeare’s "Hamlet" from Ophelia’s point of view. I will be speaking with director Claire McCarthy as well as with Lisa Klein, author of the novel the film is based on. The film stars Daisy Ridley (of "Star Wars" fame) as the title character.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:01 You may think you know my story, many who've told it, it has long passed into history.

Speaker 2: 00:12 Miss [inaudible], I have seen more of heaven and hell and most people dream on [inaudible] die. There's always a willful gun in front of my heart and spoke my mind, and this is high time. I should tell you my story myself.

Speaker 1: 00:56 Most people are probably familiar with Shakespeare's hamlet or at least know something about it's melancholy Dane who hesitates an avenging his father's death, but the new film, Ophelia reimagines, the play from the point of view of Hamlet's love interest, a young woman named Ophelia who commit suicide or does she

Speaker 3: 01:29 [inaudible].

Speaker 1: 01:29 Welcome back to KPBS as cinema junkie and part two of my podcast on the female perspective in film. I'm Beth AHCA, Mondo. In the second part, I look to the new film, Ophelia that starts daisy Ridley's the title character and was directed by Claire McCarthy. It's based on the young adult novel by Lisa Klein. The film allows you to see hamlet with new eyes. Those of us smart young woman who bristles at the limitations society, tries to place on her. I'm going to take this short break and then I'll be back to talk with the director Claire McCarthy and author Lisa Klein about retelling hamlet from a female perspective. I began my interview with Clair McCarthy by asking what attracted her to Lisa client's novel, Ophelia.

Speaker 4: 02:15 I think the, the challenge of this crazy kind of shifted the narrative access, showing an insight into Ophelia's point of view. It's a period setting, but it's a risk on arguably one of Shakespeare's most beloved and sequin masterpieces. So suddenly things could land wrong or be misunderstood or feel too lost your high brow. So I was really attracted to trying to set up the best circumstances for a younger audience to feel for these complex characters and hopefully relate to to the struggle, the failure, and to be emotionally moved. So to me it was, it was going to be a challenge to tell a story about humans across culture and time and, and there's some complex themes, you know, jealousy, loneliness, shame, self-loathing, depression to land these big themes and have an emotional state in a way that doesn't isolate a younger audience. It felt like we needed to figure out how to have a contemporary touchstone for this.

Speaker 4: 03:14 And a lot of that is inherent within the piece, the way that the story has turned, it turned on its access and is telling things differently. Uh, and the way that we're navigating through failures eyes. But yeah, there's, there was a lot of, a lot of challenges. We, we discussed the language and I talked a lot about the need for there to be a crispness and a bounce through the interactions that, that this was not trying to be kind of Shakespeare in a classic sense that we want to see humor and for it to feel like a big intense, epic world. So, you know, there was a lot of stylistic and tonal kind of balancing issues to kind of consider as well as obviously working out who was going to be the cast. Then we landed a really amazing cast and also finding that that really important to remember it of, you know, cinematographer and production designer and all our incredible and industrious team. We, we might, we made the film in Prague. So it was also about in terms of living into production, how you know, the tone of the world and how we move through that and create that world and make sure we weren't seduced by incredible sets and fancy camera moves and that was ultimately leaving as much room and emphasis to create this world with these actors.

Speaker 5: 04:29 Now you mentioned that you wanted this to appeal to a younger audience, but for you was part of the appeal also that the novel took the point of view of the female supporting character as opposed to just keeping it, I mean you could have done a hamlet for a younger generation, um, but you've picked one that's particularly from a young woman's point of view in retelling. And I was just curious if that was part of the appeal as well.

Speaker 4: 04:52 Absolutely, absolutely. I think as as I was saying before, you know, an audience can, if they do know hamlet and they can really experience the hamlet, they, they might know and love and hopefully find some whimsy in the shifts of the narrative and tonal access. But ultimately, yeah, this is, this is a failure through her world. The intention was to always be couched in her point of view and her particular insights about the dynamics happening around her. We never wanted to lose her or have this, you're passive or a victim as she in the original play. It's just such a tragic icon and such, so such a small role in the play. But, uh, I think she's become a kind of iconic figure. So yeah, that was certainly a, a big attraction to this is to work out how to give her currency and in a completely different way and to try and understand the dynamics of the Hamlet's story from a different point of view. From her point of view.

Speaker 5: 05:47 Well, I'm a big fan of Shakespeare in his plays. And when I first heard about this that my one concern was that it was going to have this kind of perspective where they put a modern female character into this setting and that she might appear to contemporary. But what I really liked about what the film did was it showed what a strong, intelligent woman had to kind of like suffer through being in that time period that she looks into the library where she's not allowed. And because of her place of birth, she's, you know, limited to certain things that she can do with her life. And I, I really appreciated how you gave it a strong female perspective, but didn't necessarily, you know, make it this unrealistic kind of contemporary character back in that setting.

Speaker 4: 06:35 Yes, it's it. So that's a good insight because there's that it's sort of incremental. It's, it's a shift of the point of view. It's allowing us, hopefully to empathize with what it would be like being low status. Um, she's not in a power position in the world that she lives in, which is often the case for women now. So allowing her to navigate through that, to use strategy and to work her way through that world is, is not only unique to the hamlet world that we never really understand what feel it. We never have a lot of dimensions, understand what affiliate would've been dewerd, but also if it becomes a contemporary touchstone for now. And I guess ultimately the tragedy of how much is the triumph of affilia in a way. It's sort of what we trying to look at that, that he's undone by his own vengeance and, and the masculinity of the world that he lives in doesn't allow for enough love.

Speaker 4: 07:28 You know, and, and so ultimately her scheming and not even scamy, but her, her strategy and her ability to navigate through that world, even though she, she, she has a victory in a different way. She's not undone and not brought down by the tragedy. So yeah, that, that, that's kind of the things that really drew me to this material that is, that it has, um, raised a lot of questions and, and it's such a, it's a, it's incremental as to how far you can push these things because sometimes it can just feel anachronistic and you just wonder, that's just not believable. I can't relate to it. And so it's trying to work out how you were, how much latitude you had to push that character within that context of that world and still hopefully allow there to be enough room to still let there be complexity and also a capacity for an audience or today to experience a real experienced this particular situation and story.

Speaker 5: 08:24 Well and also seemed like you not only gave us an insight into Ophelia's character, but also into Gertrude who is another character who is sometimes kind of difficult to understand from the small amount of time that we get to see her on stage. That's

Speaker 4: 08:39 true. Yes, I have. I started to hear that a Franco Zeffirelli is a beautiful filmmaker, passed away just recently, a couple of days ago, and I was really struck by his version of hamlet, particularly the character of Gertrude was so complex, uh, this kind of eternal take on, on hamlet, which we've seen on stage a few times, but I think it was probably the first time that's been brought to screen. And so in working with Naomi's, such as Naomi Watts is such a beautiful, complex, wonderful artists thinking about how to bring in, you know, we did a lot of, we talked a lot about the way that Gertrude had been represented and, and often judged. I mean that's the other thing is in ships the point of view, it's allowing the characters to have flaws and to do questionable things, but to not, not allow us to presume that they're bad or wrong or silly that we're trying to be inside this their situation.

Speaker 4: 09:39 So yeah, I guess it allows us more latitude to understand what it would feel like to be, to be kind of lonely, you know, a lot of the complex kind of issues that she would be dealing with, you know, jealousy and shine and self-loading and depression. They're very contemporary sort of, um, discussion points, but they're things that, that are very inherent within her character. And in that, that early version of, of, uh, Gertrude, we see a sort of EAD pool version where she sees affiliate as arrival or you know, hamlet is taken from her and how that hurts her as a mother and a woman. And I, we didn't necessarily go there with our version, but we did, we did discuss that and we did bring in colors of these other versions. But there's certainly, there's certainly a, a sort of a female perspective on it in a sense or a contemporary perspective.

Speaker 4: 10:31 I don't want to necessarily say it's a feminine perspective exclusively because certainly an exploration of the masculine is inherent to how much and seeing the way he, he also is seeing the way that the Philia relates to hamlet and how he responds to his circumstances are so important to the story too. But definitely there, there was, uh, there was a lot of discussions with Naomi about how the land is character and to find the love, you know, find the empathy for her as opposed to come from a point of um, presumption that she's weak or inferior or just a part of the rottenness of that, of that empire that caught at that time.

Speaker 5: 11:10 Well, you bring up Zephyr Ellie's film and I was also impressed in that film by Helena Bonham Carter's Ophelia. She felt like a much stronger Ophelia than I had seen before in it. It made me kind of listen to the lines differently, which is again, what, what happens in your film too because there are references to Shakespeare's hamlet within it. There are lines that are kind of similar, um, and, and story elements taken from there. So I, I like the way it makes you kind of re here and re see some of the things in the original play.

Speaker 4: 11:47 Mm. I think so too. I think that version of hamlet really brought hamlet to life for me and I agree that that interpretation of failure was she, she felt so fragile. And, and she had a heart, um, and a, and a creative imagination, you felt the tragedy even more because you thought she wasn't at the victim. There was something, um, complex going on for her beyond hamlet and her belief in love and, and you know, that she, she was bound to this sort of, um, from authors in that world where there was so much corruption and power and toxicity. So, yeah, I, I agree it, it was an, in thinking about casting Ophelia daisies, such a, um, daisy Ridley, such a, such a contemporary woman, like she's so sort of, she has such self determinism and vulnerability and strength and that was in considering how the sort of land around screen, you know, we had this kind of Prereq [inaudible] kind of world that we were creating those kind of, you know, we, we did, uh, we do have a lot of homogenized to the classic paintings and the, the worlds of the original, um, the original play and how it's being represented in art.

Speaker 4: 13:03 So on the exterior, there was this sense of her being this maiden or this kind of, this sort of typical idea of what a woman would have been at that time. But having a character, having an actress come to that role and bring an essence that could, could feel like we could relate to her and, um, that you would feel that she could survive this at the end. You know, that on her own terms was really important. Uh, in thinking about how to bring that to the screen or how to bring her to the screen

Speaker 2: 13:31 for Flash, I thought you were a ghost at school. We dissected a corpse into his parts. There was no room for his ghost. I shall have to take the word for it in my note. I know nothing of the parts of man. You stopped my heart. [inaudible] if your heart stopped, you would die. I seem to be quite alive parents to see [inaudible] see this innocent flower and yet it is Bella Dona the most deadly. Nightshade [inaudible] means beautiful woman. [inaudible] and you said at this point [inaudible] well you promised to dance with me Sunday. I'm a photo I type of guy.

Speaker 5: 14:32 I'm just curious if, um, you've screened the film and what kind of an audience response you've gotten and how you've kind of um, gauged that.

Speaker 4: 14:40 My favorite screening was when we did a screening I think to like a thousand young people outside of Utah. And that was my favorite because it was the first time we'd actually screened to a full audience of that were high school students and I think first year uni and it was overwhelming how much people related to the film. Cause at that point I wasn't certain if a younger audience would or wouldn't relate to the movie. And it means a lot to me that, that this is, this is something that younger people can access. That was probably my favorite screening. Yeah. It's my hope that the characters, the story have you currency and this can invite a younger audience to experience or re experience if they do know hamlet, this, this kind of a world and that they're invited to be a part of it. And not to be spoken to or spoken at that this is the conversation that they can be a part of.

Speaker 1: 15:29 No two sides struggling in here. One is baser on better. She tells my fortune, her ratio, my Lord. It is your misfortune, Ophelia directed by Claire McCarthy and starring Daisy Ridley opens in select theaters today. I'll be right back after this short break with author Lisa Klein, whose love for Shakespeare led her to write a series of young adult novels inspired by the Bard. I began my interview with author Lisa Klein by asking what inspired her to reimagine hamlet from Ophelia's point of view.

Speaker 6: 16:03 Oh, what inspired me? Well, I guess we should go back to my teaching at Ohio State University. And when I didn't get tenure at Ohio State, um, I still needed, felt like I needed an outlet for my academic interests and I was ready to give up teaching but not research and writing. And so I decided to try to write a novel and they say, you know, write what you know. And I felt I knew Shakespeare fairly well after teaching for so many years. And Teaching hamlet particularly. And, and in teaching him what I just always been displeased with the character from Celia and representations of a Phelia and discussions as Lucilia. And I was annoyed at hamlet for his mistreatment of men. Um, and so I just wondered what the play hamlet would look like from Ophelia's point of view. And that started just the whole series of what ifs, you know, what if she and hamlet had quite a deep relationship and what would that look like and what if she didn't drown? Because if you're writing a novel, you can't have your main character, you know, die, your reader would be quite disappointed. And you also can't have a main character who was weak enough to kill herself over hamlet. So it was just this process of thinking about hamlet from a different perspective. And I think it was a book I'd sort of always wanted to write when I was teaching hamlet as a book to teach alongside hamlet because I frequently, I frequently did that when I taught Shakespeare.

Speaker 1: 17:35 What was kind of your intent when you wanted to take Ophelia's point of view? Did you want to kind of flesh out her character more fully or did you want to try and re interpreter? What was kind of your, your driving,

Speaker 5: 17:50 uh, purpose in that?

Speaker 6: 17:51 I think it was more of reinterpretation. It was kind of a, an experiment. I did want to reinterpret there. I wanted to flesh her out. I wanted to make her a more complete character because I, that wasn't Shakespeare's intention. Shakespeare used her as a foil to hamlet, a foil to Hamlet's madness as loyal to hamlets, revenge plot. And, and I, and I thought, well, there has to be more to this character than just, you know, madness and eventually a drowning, whether it's suicide or an accident, I mean, that, that doesn't make for the very compelling character. And so, you know, I thought that she really had to be a stronger character than Shakespeare presented her. You know, that there had to be something special about her that would have drawn the attention of the prince of Denmark. So she wasn't just, you know, sort of a whinge about the court or, or, or some nobody, you know, the Prince of Denmark fell in love with her.

Speaker 6: 18:49 So, you know, with that assumption, I just began to sort of create her character in flesh who were out, give her a voice, you know, give her ambitions and desires of her own, make her witty and give her the intelligence to, you know, converse with hamlet and to navigate this really dangerous environment, you know, the court of Elsinore and then ultimately to escape it in order to preserve her life. So it was just one thing led to another. And finally, you know, she was this fully imagined character with a backstory before she came to ELLs and Noller and a story for after she leaves cells in the lungs

Speaker 5: 19:28 now is some of the frustration that you might have felt with the character based on the way she's been interpreted on stage and in film as opposed to strictly problem's coming from the text.

Speaker 6: 19:41 Yeah. She has a kind of fire to her, but she also has a, a real distinct madness. You know, there's no doubt that she is, she is, you know, lost her marbles and is deranged and just damaged by everything that's happened to her. And so that did not sit well with me because I wanted to think about her rising above the situation and all of the nor, and not destroying herself out of madness and, and frustrated and frustrated love. But yes, you're right. And that, um, representations of Ophelia and movies and plays, even performances of hamlet quite often cut a lot of, uh, feely as lines and who songs. So really Shakespeare gives a feely a much greater presence in the words of his play than subsequent performances have done. Um, which really allied much of a feeling his character and her scenes and who and whose dialogue, which gives many hints of strength. Um, really, so there is a lot in Shakespeare to work on, um, and that, and fleshing out the character of a failure.

Speaker 5: 20:50 And one of the things that I liked about what you did was that it wasn't simply going back in and trying to kind of turn her into some feminist hero or change her completely. What I enjoyed was that you created this character who seemed very smart and strong, but she was fighting against kind of the strictures of what society was like at the time. So we get this sense, this picture of what a woman like her was struggling against in that particular period of time.

Speaker 6: 21:24 Yes. It really, it really was very important for me to make her historically believable, plausible and not some sort of protofeminist or you know, 20th century teenager, super imposed back over, uh, you know, a renaissance character. So I really, I took great pain from my research and with my delineation of her character to give her traits and abilities and experiences that would be believable from a woman of her time. Um, for instance, her, her knowledge of herbs and medicine would be a kind of knowledge that a woman could have and, and a source of strength, you know, as sort of, uh, uh, knowledge. And it was of course the knowledge that made her able to concoct the potion that mimic death and enabled her escape from Ellison over. So just in, in her education, she obtained by sort of tagging along with, with layer t's. I did not want to have an anachronistic character sort of plopped in the middle of this Shakespearean reinvention.

Speaker 5: 22:24 Well, and also you point out how much class, and you know, birthright kind of plays into things too, that, you know, because she comes from a family that's perceived as poor and, and not of royalty, that this kind of sets a certain course for her that seems very difficult to contradict her or go against.

Speaker 6: 22:46 Yeah. Well it also gives you something to do rise above and to achieve because of course when she was taken into the, into Queen Gertrude's company and becomes a lady and leading her, her prospects improve immensely. But she is always fighting against that. You know, she's not noble, she's not, um, well born. Her father is a slightly doddy advisor to, to the king. Um, so she, she does have a lot to overcome, which of course you, you want your character to, to rise above her circumstances and have something to work for and to overcome.

Speaker 5: 23:20 And the story is told from Ophelia's point of view, but you also bring some nice layers and depth to Gertrude as well.

Speaker 6: 23:28 It was really important for me cause feeling it doesn't have a mother and part of what makes her human and yearning and endearing is that she longs for that, for that contact. So that relationship. And so, um, Gertrude becomes kind of a surrogate mother to her and of course their relationship gets very complex and intense because she's hiding from Gertrude, her secret romance with Gertrude son the prints. And then, you know, later on in the story, which I won't give away, you know, Gertrude has a chance to betray her but does not. And I'm Gertrude herself I think is a really a really compelling figure because we never know when we read Shakespeare's play, just how much Gertrud knows about Claudius is evil deeds. Um, does, you know, this was, she complicit at all in the murder of King Hamlet. And so she really has the potential to be a very complicated, um, complicated character. Um, and so I wanted to capitalize on it and make her an important person. In a feeling as life too.

Speaker 5: 24:35 Now Hamlin is a play that has drawn the attention of, of, excuse me, of other writers in terms of kind of looking at it from different angles. The most memorable is Tom Stoppard's, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. So when you were tackling this, what was your thought in terms of how did you want to weave Shakespeare's actual play or characters or you know, bits of his dialogue. How did you decide that you wanted to use that within the context of your book?

Speaker 6: 25:05 Well, I'm glad you mentioned stopper because I, I, I love that play. And what I did with the book was a little bit of what Tom Stoppard does with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, is that, um, he doesn't change the action of the play, but he shows you what's happening off stage. He shows you other scenes, you know, when, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exit hamlet, then they have their own, you know, life and their own dialogue in there. Other things go on. And so I thought of a Phelia as I laid out hamlet very carefully, the timeline, the events, everything that happened. And I basically wove Ophelia's story in and out of the hamlet story so that I did not change anything about the play hamlet, the action of the play. But I just looked at it from a different point of view. I did not want Shakespeare Aficionados to, to, you know, rise up in arms and say she changed the play.

Speaker 6: 26:00 You just can't do that. So, um, nothing, nothing in my book contradicts the play. Um, it's all a plausible what if, you know, sort of re-interpretation um, yes, you can say I contradict the play because Ophelia doesn't drown, but we never see a Phelia killed herself in the play. We only see Gertrude report that she just drowned. And so it leaves the possibility that a few lead doesn't actually drown, but that she sort of fakes her drowning and then manages to escape with. She has the help of a ratio, the trustee, her ratio. So all these, everything I do with hamlet is plausible within Shakespeare's, within the terms of Shakespeare's play. Um, which was kind of an intellect. What I said was sort of an intellectual exercise for me. I just, I enjoyed doing that. I enjoyed augmenting hamlet without changing it.

Speaker 5: 27:00 And Ophelia has now been made into a film with Daisy Ridley who is in the star wars films. Have you had a chance to see it?

Speaker 6: 27:09 I did and I really, I do love that. I think it's visually stunning. Daisy Ridley is a lovely Ophelia. George Mackay is a very endearing hamlet and Clive Owen is his Claudius very menacing figure and Naomi watts has just not worn, but two great roles in the film. The film is, is not the book and that's okay. It's, it's its own saying, I just feel incredibly lucky that that my book won the lottery, so to speak, by actually getting made into a movie. And which is entirely due to the persistence of its of its producers.

Speaker 5: 27:46 I mean obviously when, when they make a film they usually have to cut down on what a novel does. But do you feel they captured the essence of what you were trying to do with the book?

Speaker 6: 27:56 I think so. I think so. Of course. You're right. They did have to pare down much of much of the book in order to make it into a, into a movie. I did, I got to go to Prague to see some of the filming, which was fascinating. You know, I've been shown the script beforehand just out of a courtesy because I did not have any input in it, but I read it and I had a few reservations about it. But seeing the film, those reservations were put to rest because the film was no longer words on a page, uh, which is like a black and white snapshot really. But the film itself became a living thing and, and the words are spoken, but with gestures and facial expressions and intonation and you've got actors in their costumes in elaborate settings and music in creative camera work. So that the script is, is like this minor piece. It's only the starting point for, for the movie. Uh, and it was interesting to watch that process and see, see how words on a page or transformed utterly in coming to life as a, as a movie.

Speaker 5: 29:04 And was there anything in the film that surprised you in the sense of once your story went through other people's eyes and and you know, got transformed and translated, was there anything that you saw on the screen that was, you know, seeing it actually acted out or visualized that you go like, ah, I didn't quite think of it that way or that's a nice way to look at it.

Speaker 6: 29:27 It was interesting to see what they changed and why they changed it. Okay. Because they, in my, and my book for instance, hamlet does not come across very well because he mistreats a Phelia and he, you know, has this bow of that he puts above his bow for Ofelia. But in the movie, in order to, to, to pro promote the romance between hamlet and Ophelia as long as possible, hamlet is a much nicer guy and a much more sympathetic character. Actress Naomi y ends up playing two characters in order to have a bigger screen presence. And so that [inaudible] tail, some changing of the plot that might seem kind of outrageous, but it works in the context of the movie. It works. And, um, it makes them, seeing the revenge enacted in the final scene was really sad and, and really, um, really cleverly well done. So I won't say any more than that. I don't want to ruin it for viewers, but it's a, it's a re becomes a revenge play re revenge movie for the me too moment. Um, it's very compelling ending

Speaker 3: 30:51 [inaudible]

Speaker 1: 30:51 that was author Lisa Klein, her novel. Ophelia is now a movie starring Daisy Ridley. Be sure to listen to part one of this podcast featuring Heidi Honeycutt programmer of a theory of film night, which focuses on women's genre directors. I'll be back in two weeks with an interview with Director Lulu Wong about her Sundance. Hit the farewell. Please subscribe to cinema junkie on iTunes and leave a review if you enjoy the show or better yet, tell a friend. So till our next film fixed on Beth DACA, Mondo, your residence cinema junkie.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place