In all his plays, Shakespeare never gave so much weight on female roles and characters, as he always took a specific approach towards gender dynamics. However, in Hamlet, the poet gave to Ophelia a strong, yet graceful power. Captured by this mysterious and bold creature, directors like Zeffirelli (1990), Branagh (1996), and Almereyda (2000) depicted her in three completely different ways and eras: Middle Ages, Renaissance, and the Present. Generally, in paintings Ophelia is represented as a romantic, tragic, powerless heroine and this kind of mythology around her is given from the way Gertrude described how the heroine drowned: “Till that her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death.” In this way, the queen makes Ophelia’s death look like an accident of the branch broking and her plunging helplessly in the water.
In Zeffirelli, Ophelia’s death is very little shown on the screen. At first, right after Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia get mad, she runs away towards to what it seems like a lake. And as soon as the director centers her in a zoomed close-up over a parallel anxious sound, Gertrude’s flashback of describing her death starts. The sound suddenly stops, and with a constant medium shot of the queen, it is visible an overhead shot of Ophelia’s lifeless body in the water. Instead, Branagh has chosen to give the possibility to the audience to imagine Ophelia’s death. Even if the audience can still see a short-medium shot of her body drowned under water suddenly after, Gertrude owns the scene surrounded also by a parallel dreamy sound. Also, in Almereyda’s movie, Ophelia is not shown more than a few seconds.
However, in this film, the director decided to put a similar overhead shot of her body surrounded by flowers and drowned in a modern fountain – which is not easy to believe she could have drowned -, after Gertrude’s story. It has to be mentioned that in this modern movie, every time Ophelia appears to the screen there is always a blue spot of water, whether it is the ocean or a simple pool. Yet, the young woman’s death did not sound odd to Laertes and Claudius, since it appeared as a deliberate suicide caused by her madness after Polonius’ death. In fact, Ophelia’s loss of her father was only the last straw that made her “mad.” Also, Hamlet treated her very viciously, especially when he ordered her to “get thee to a nunnery.” (3.1.125) So, the man once she loved, killed her father, who was telling her he was not sure whether he did never love her or he used to love her, was yelling at Ophelia to run away from everyone and everything. Maybe, it was too much pressure for her patients that she, somehow, expressed with madness. Like towards the end of Act IV, when she hands out flowers she has gathered to Gertrude, Claudius, and Laertes.
Flowers, which had specific meaning for the Elizabethan audience, and contained a second meaning for the addressed. In fact, she gave out fennel and columbines presumably to Gertrude as those meant flatteries and marital infidelity. Or even when she hands out rue, which signified repentance, to Laertes and Claudius she also mentions violets, as associated with faithfulness, which was dead after Polonius’ incident: “withered all when my father died.” (4.4.186) In a sound parallel scene, Zeffirelli directs these images by making Ophelia hand out dried branches as to emphasize more her madness. Moreover, a young Bonham-Carter let the audience believe that she was seriously mad as she had a profound and sinister look on her face. An even loonier Ophelia is seen in Branagh: in fact, Kate Winslet is imprisoned in a straitjacket yelling against Gertrude and Claudius on a cold, large, extravagant checkered court’s floor. Yet, it changes all when Julia Stiles in Almereyda, gets mad by continuously yelling at Claudius and Gertrude in the Guggenheim Museum during a very elegant party.
Dressed all in modern and casual attire, this last Ophelia is taken in a quieter place in order to speak to the couple. Once she faces them and her brother Laertes, she starts crying desperately, seeming like she lost all her strengths, effortless. And a very modern way in which Almereyda linked Shakespeare to the modern days is the kind of flowers Stiles hands out: Polaroids, as they were petals. (NYTimes) Ophelia is analyzed continuously in each scene of each movie. Indeed, when Hamlet breaks her heart by yelling at her to go to a nunnery, the directors made the scene become a breakpoint, where the heroine started to worry and slowly to collapse. Zeffirelli directed the scene in a very passionate way. Mel Gibson as Hamlet seems to be largely angry against the poor Ophelia, as the climax of the moment is seen when he throws to her from the highest point of the stairs his clock.
Bonham-Carter’s reaction recalls a classical and traditional female action, as she covers her face and she let goes herself toward the rocky wall. While in Branagh, himself as Hamlet seems to be more violent: he physically takes Ophelia from her hands and then from her back, pushing her towards the mirrored door where her father is watching the whole frightening scene. In this way, the audience feels how the heroine is violated and deprived of her graciousness and purity. A different and modern violence is seen when Ethan Hawke, Hamlet in Almereyda, causes to Ophelia an unrelenting tantrum (NYTimes) as he follows her home and continues to call and yell at her while she does not answer at the phone, so he continuously leaves messages with a threating voice at the answering machine. In all three movies, is analyzed Ophelia’s reaction and her most subversive way of delivering thoughts, and judgment against the corruption, and unfairness of what women have to pass through. While chasing her freedom, behind a madness mask. It is clear that while Hamlet is stuck between to be or not to bee, Ophelia deliberately chose not to be hence, she killed herself going against her religious faith and believes. Viewing death as the only solution to her temporary problems, the heroin made a decision for herself for once.
In Hamlet 2000, Stiles wants desperately to plunge in a blue pool, imaging her suicide and giving her a natural onscreen empathy. In Zeffirelli, Ophelia gets very mad at the point that she fills up her guard. At first, she is portrayed like everybody imagines her: a graceful and fragile creature. Yet, once the play goes own, Bonham-Carter transforms herself into another Ophelia, as an alter ego of herself. Branagh’s Renaissance depiction of Ophelia was perfect for her actress, Kate Winslet. More than Zeffirelli, Winslet can visibly enjoy her feelings. When she kisses Hamlet, the audience can perceive the passion between the two it is, in fact, the sexual component that gives that little extra. However, this love becomes then, violence and passion. She gradually “descent into madness – matters in the ultimate scheme of things,” as stated in the Washington Post. Almereyda is for sure the most creative, and ingenious director among the three. He created a new yet old Ophelia’s character, which is interpreted by Stiles in a mystic and mysterious way. At first glance, the actress has seemed immature, as a child that it must tell her always what to and to not do. However, this sensation of immaturity becomes false when Stiles is “who is too modern to go mad. She just gets really, really upset.”
In conclusion, all three directors created different memorable aspects of what globally is Ophelia as a Shakespearian character. Although the movies were set in different eras and the role was played by three completely different actresses, the directors had in mind the same ideas on Ophelia. A young woman divided between the dichotomy of appearing the perfect Hamlet’s lover, Polonius’ daughter, and Laertes’s sister and of being and doing, once in her lifetime, what she really felt to do at that very moment: not to be.
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