Ophelia is a visceral and urgent reimagining of one of Shakespeare’s tragic love stories. Two people, both pushed to their own limits whilst trying to hold on desperately to each other, discover that love, too, can be just as destructive.
The use of Shakespeare in modern day settings is so ubiquitous in this day and age that is it a rare gem that is able to utilise his work to bring a fresh perspective or new story to a contemporary audience. Reassembling the dream team behind 2015’s ‘Bus Stop’ seems to have accomplished that task in fine form as director Jamie Sims helms a screenplay by Sam Underwood, who also takes on the role of Hamlet opposite Valorie Curry as the titular Ophelia.
Rather than simply retelling the story of Hamlet, Underwood cleverly repurposes two separate moments to create a new story. No less about tragic self-destruction, Underwood crafts his story around Ophelia, so hopelessly in love with her once proud and noble man that she despairs of her inability to stop his downward spiral. Even worse, she sees no way to untangle herself from his inevitable (and imminent) implosion. Taking the core of the tragedy from the original text, that Ophelia’s knowledge of how intelligent, cultured and powerful Hamlet used to be is the very thing stopping her from abandoning the disintegrating figure that he has become, Underwood creates a violent criminal underworld of drugs and unlicensed boxing. A surprising amount of subtext is communicated with only a few simple actions and as a result, Underwood’s screenplay is able to entice the audience into filling in the blanks of a world that the film’s 13-minute runtime does not allow us to see.
Jamie Sims’ practiced eye takes Underwood’s world and runs with it. Together with utterly stunning photography from David Tuttman, Sims builds on Underwood’s story, adding depth and texture by juxtaposing the pastel coloured and clean world in which first Hamlet, then Ophelia lament their lives’ failures, with the monochromatically dark and gritty world of bare knuckle fist fighting. The immersive and visceral style used to shoot the fight scenes, puts us right in the ring with Hamlet, flinching with every punch and almost involuntarily wiping away the dripping blood. By contrast, the softly lit, closely framed and loosely cut scenes between Ophelia and Hamlet brilliantly get across both the passion and occasional tenderness of these two lovers as well as the heavily cracked venire of adoration, under which lies a doom neither one of them seems likely to escape.
Pacing is key in a film that divides its time between solemn lamentation, frantic violence and the dark foreboding that comes with emotional instability. This is a mandate that editor Matt Cresswell fulfills without the need for jarring cuts and fanciful editing. Cresswell seems to almost instinctively know when to up the speed during Hamlet’s fight scenes or his more unhinged moments and when to simply let the shot play out. By using an editing style that compliments the shot set-ups from DoP Tuttman and the performances of the actors on screen, Creswell makes it possible to weave in and out of the memories and mental states of both Ophelia and Hamlet and further grounds us in their character journeys.
Sam Underwood as a brutally bloodied Hamlet (Courtesy of Initiative 26)
One of the most compelling aspects of this film is that rather than it simply being a descent into ruin, its focus is the far more heartbreaking story of a woman watching helplessly as her lover destroys himself piece by piece. Using Shakespearian prose to do this in such a visually powerful setting requires an actor of incredible creative courage. So it is no surprise that Valorie Curry rises to this challenge. As an executive producer, Curry wisely entrusts former collaborator/director Jamie Sims to guide her performance to stunning effect. As the title suggests, this is Curry’s story to tell and save for her opening line and closing speech, much of her performance is done without dialogue. One of the film’s highlights is what Curry is able to do with a simple look or gesture. Watch for her reaction to the brutal line “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Being able to project the emotional mixed bag of fear, despair, regret, loneliness and, at times anger, without overplaying the role is no easy task, but Curry manages this with a compelling blend of faltering pride and silent vulnerability.
Underwood also impresses as he fills the shoes of the legendary Hamlet with searing anger and an almost unsettling intensity. His take on the Danish prince, reformatted to English brawler, leans hard into someone so emotionally damaged and so ill equipped to deal with that trauma that he literally tries to beat his pain into submission. His reckless fighting style seems indicative of someone who wants to demolish and be demolished in equal measure. Underwood brilliantly gives us a man at emotional and psychological breaking point, complete with hallucinations and drug addiction. And while it is tempting to use drugs as a trope of a broken person, Underwood’s incorporation of its effect on his character, even in an otherwise happy scene brings authenticity to a move that may otherwise have undermined this gripping character study.
This is a million miles away from the last time these actors teamed with this director. As such the storytelling and performance capabilities of Sims, Curry and Underwood are very much in evidence here. Both films are about love, but ‘Ophelia’ exists on a totally different part of the spectrum. This is a love story that is begging to be thrown into reverse, but is so gripping that the audience, like Ophelia herself, will find it impossible to let go.
Wonderfully shot and magnificently performed, ‘Ophelia’ is an exemplary short film and well worth a place on your watch list.
Find out more about ‘Ophelia’ and the filmmakers from Initiative 26