From Ethereal Confrontation to Child Abuse to Womanly Conflict: Ophelia in Three Late-Twentieth Century Films

by Dianne M. Hunter

December 31, 2008


Kate Winslet plays the mad Ophelia as a late-nineteenth-century-style Bedlam hysteric, Helena Bonham-Carter plays her as a victim of emotional double-binding and sexual trauma, Marianne Faithfull plays her as a drugged, rebellious youth who deploys her musical voice and 60s pop icon status as confrontation. The Hamlets who appear as their male counterparts are respectively, a spurned but dignified prince (Kenneth Branagh), an angry action hero (Mel Gibson), and an aging graduate student (Nicol Williamson). These six performances can be seen to represent redefinitions of gender consonant with changes in cultural history between the 1960s and the 1990s in the English-speaking world.


Every time I passed through the Pre-Raphaelite gallery during a visit a few years ago to the Tate Britain Museum in London, there was a group of adolescent girls standing in front of the famous John Everett Millais oil painting (1850-51), of the flower-laden, singing Ophelia being washed down the stream.  This image seemed to draw these girls as one of a very few places where they could see their age and gender represented in the art history on exhibit.  It is an image of beautified passivity vacantly carried away. 

Martha Ronk has observed that Ophelia, even within Shakespeare’s play, is primarily an image, her characterization achieved via ekphrasis. (1994: 21).  Though Ophelia appears in but five of the twenty or so scenes comprising Shakespeare’s text (I.iii—Laertes’s advice to Ophelia followed by Polonius’s admonition to her; II.i—Ophelia’s report to Polonius of Hamlet’s strangely-changed behavior; III.i—the nunnery scene; III.ii—the play-within-the play; and IV.v—her mad scenes), she has inspired an abundance of visual representations maintaining strong extra-textual vitality (see Harry Rusche’s Emory University online “Illustrated Ophelia” site; Showalter, 1985; Peterson, 1998; and Rhodes 2008).

 Elaine Showalter argued in 1985 that the history of representations of Ophelia demonstrates an evolving ideological nexus of female sexuality, femininity, and madness.  Of all the characters in Hamlet, the figure of Ophelia, in keeping with ever-changing fashions in social constructions of femininity, has been most tellingly inscribed by its moment of performance.  Ophelia’s portrayal therefore provides a key to the cultural moment of any particular production of Hamlet.  Showalter’s model of a gender dialectic in history also suggests how Hamlet, a figure of youthful masculinity, performs versions of manliness, though that is not Showalter’s brief. 

I want to expand Showalter’s narrative of Ophelia, discuss Marianne Faithfull’s representational power as a cultural icon, and argue that, just as Faithful evokes the 1960s, Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia on film invokes the recovered memory hysteria of the 1980s, and that Kate Winslet’s Ophelia on film, in contrast and the strongest and most womanly of these three, embodies the relatively liberated though ultimately thwarted 1990s.

Showalter recounts how during Elizabethan-Jacobean times, Ophelia served as an icon of emotional extremity, a figure whose disheveled hair and death by drowning signified female love-malady or erotomania. In the eighteenth century, Ophelia’s mad scenes were minimized in stage presentations, conforming to the then-reigning rationalist ideologies of decorum.  For example, in 1785, Sarah Siddons portrayed Ophelia's madness with stately, classical dignity.  In 1827, during the triumph of Romanticism, the Irish ingénue Harriet Smithson expanded Ophelia’s role to include miming a visit to Polonius’s grave, “a piece of stage business which remained in vogue for the rest of the century."  Moreover, Smithson entered her mad scene in a long, black veil, “suggesting the standard imagery of female sexual mystery in the gothic novel, with scattered bedlamish wisps of straw in her hair.”  Smithson’s intensely visual performance, observes Showalter, defined “the romantic Ophelia—a young girl passionately and visibly driven to picturesque madness.  This “became the dominant international acting style for the next 150 years, from Helena Modjeska in Poland in 1871, to the 18-year-old Jean Simmons in the Laurence Olivier film of 1948.”  Showalter notes that whereas “the romantic Hamlet, in Coleridge’s famous dictum, thinks too much, has an ‘overbalance of the contemplative faculty’ and an overactive intellect, the romantic Ophelia is a girl who feels too much, who drowns in feeling” (1985: 83; Showalter’s italics).

Marianne Faithfull’s sylph-like performance as Ophelia in the (1969) Tony Richardson-directed Hamlet film evokes the image of sixties-style, counter-cultural folk and popular singers such as Mary Travers and Joni Mitchell.  The female body type personified by the minimally-fleshed fashion model known as Twiggy, plus the full-breasted French film star Brigitte Bardot combine with the folk singer Mary Travers in the 1960s Faithfull ideal of femininity.  Faithfull’s mad scene is shot in close-up with Ophelia right in the faces of the King and Queen, whom she appears to mock defiantly.  This tableau suggests the singing trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, with Ophelia in the position of Mary Travers.  Faithfull’s face appears in a close-range shot of a bearded Anthony Hopkins as Claudius seated on his throne on Faithfull’s stage left, and the pale, long-faced Judy Parfitt as Gertrude seated on Hopkins’s right, with Ophelia’s face between them, a perfect stage picture for Showalter’s association of Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Here’s how one commentator sums up the date mark in Faithfull’s performance: “Ophelia is pretty despite painfully-dated 60s makeup, but she’s also reduced to a 60s type of female—sort of knocked-on-the-head accepting smilingness through whatever storms go on around her.”  Gertrude, says this reviewer, “is a 60s evil queen, sensual, but unsexed—a la Snow White.”  Ophelia’s fey madness in this film seems an expression of the spaced out zeitgeist of youth alienated from a guilty older generation.  Though Faithfull defies the King and Queen, she fails finally to upstage them.  

Marianne Faithfull’s recently published autobiography, and a documentary on her life and work released on DVD supply information on Faithfull as a sixties icon that was unavailable to Elaine Showalter for her 1985 essay on the history of Ophelia’s representations.  These more recent accounts allow us to contextualize Tony Richardson’s casting of Faithfull as Ophelia.  They tell us that in the era of swinging-sixties London, Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham described Marianne Faithfull, then 17 years of age, as “an angel with big tits.”  Oldham, who launched Faithfull as a pop star in 1964, perceived that success in the emerging music business of that era depended more on image than on sound.  Faithfull as a pop star was publicized as a young mother, an unfaithful wife, and the girlfriend of Brian Jones and then of Mick Jagger.  Her public persona comprised an adolescent waif who was "every boy's dream," a photogenic, protoGoth daughter of a Baroness of the defunct Austro-Hungarian empire, heiress of an aristocratic title traceable to the time of Charlemagne, a rebel against Roman Catholic schooling, and a television and road-show performer of popular songs selling at the top of the charts.  All of this and more contributed to her casting as Tony Richardson’s Ophelia.

Marianne’s mother, Eva Hermine von Sacher-Masoch, Baroness Erisso, had been a dancer in Max Reinhardt's company, an actress, and then a World War II refugee who, thanks to Major Robert Glynn Faithfull, escaped from occupied Vienna to England thinking she would live in a secure British conventional marriage.  Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Marianne Faithfull’s great-great uncle and the author of Venus in Furs (1870), gave us the term "masochism.”  Her paternal grandfather, Theodore Faithfull, a sexologist who invented a “Frigidity Machine,” sought to liberate British libido.  Marianne Faithfull’s father, a member of the British external Secret Intelligence Service MI6, devoted himself after World War II to Oxfordshire hippie-style communal living, much to the disappointment of his deracinated and declassed wife, who longed during Marianne’s childhood for a more stable and traditional home. 

Marianne Faithfull attained a position in cultural history as an icon of sixties youthful London.  In her breakthrough to tabloid fame as a result of her first drug bust, Faithfull was depicted in print as "Miss X," clothed in only a fur rug, as if a young Venus in fur.  In a subsequent BBC television interview praising LSD's power to open doors of perception, Faithfull lounged confidently on what looks to be a fur blanket.  Faithfull sang “As Tears Go By” and "Sister Morphine" on records, on television, and on road tours.  She went on a heroin bender and became a hip summation of decadent glamour who proved, says David Dalton, that in the Rolling Stones’s entourage at least, things were not getting better all the time.   In one of her edgiest phases, Marianne Faithfull lived as a vagabond in central London with a bombed out wall as her home base, a relic of World War II, of which, like the rest of the culture of the 1960s, she was a legacy.  In her most recent incarnation on film, Faithfull plays “Irina Palm,” a middle-aged, dowdy, suburban widow who raises money for her grandson’s medical expenses by developing skills as a highly-sought manual producer of ejaculations in a Soho sex club (director: Garbarski, 2007).  An outstanding scene shows Faithfull’s character exposing the sexual hypocrisies of her scandalized housewifely neighbors.     

Playing Ophelia on the stage and then on film in the 1960s depressed Faithfull, who took heroin before performing her mad scenes.  Heroin, says Faithfull, made her spiritually a mute.  Ophelia in Act V of Shakespeare's play, where her speech, says Horatio, is "nothing," siphons off Hamlet’s grief, madness, and suicidal drive, acting out the self-destructive melancholia that Hamlet soliloquizes.  As if her life followed the structure of this Shakespearean narrative, Faithfull acted out a well-publicized suicidal episode in the wake of the death of her former lover Brian Jones, who drowned in a swimming pool while overdosed with drugs at the moment of his rejection by the band from the emerging popularity and power of the Rolling Stones.  While accompanying Mick Jagger to Australia to film Tony Richardson's (1970) Ned Kelly, Marianne Faithfull swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills, was hospitalized, and flew home to England in a whirlwind of publicity.  In this suicidal episode, one may say that she behaved in a variation of Ophelia’s trajectory as a split of Hamlet’s suicidal drive.  That is, Marianne Faithfull in relation to Brian Jones is comparable to Ophelia vis-à-vis Hamlet.  Hamlet talks about suicide whereas Ophelia drowns; Brian Jones drowned and Marianne Faithfull drugged herself into a coma. One may see as well a parallel Ophelia trajectory in the destructive plot of Faithfull’s film debut, Girl on a Motorcycle (director: Cardiff, 1968), in which she plays a sexy casualty of romantic passion and speed.  In this regard, Faithfull as an icon appears less a Venus in Furs than a victim of male machinations and a need to pursue a glamorized death drive.  

Though they were born only eight years apart (Williamson in 1938, Faithfull in 1946), her singing waif on drugs in the 1969 Richardson film seems an odd consort for Nicol Williamson's Hamlet, who looks, especially as accompanied by Gordon Jackson (born 1923) in the role of Horatio, to be an aging and perpetual graduate student far older than Ophelia.  This suggests that the generation in rebellion in 1968 was a strange attraction between drugs, music, unbalanced femininity and male students who should have graduated long ago.

Elaine Showalter’s essay on Ophelia was in print before Franco Zeffirelli’s and Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet films of 1990 and 1996, respectively.  Zeffirelli abbreviated the four hours of Shakespeare’s play down to a two-hour film, with its action set in medieval times.  Branagh filmed the full text of Shakespeare’s play and gave it a post-Enlightenment setting.  Zeffirelli’s film is dark, dank, dusty, and brutal; Branagh’s version is dignified, brightly lit, and regal.  Their versions of Ophelia elaborate Showalter’s argument.

  Consistent with Showalter's critique of the significance of history to Ophelia’s portrayal and with the 1996 film's 1890s setting--both distant and familiar for its contemporary audience--Branagh filmed Ophelia's madness in the trappings of the “grand” gestural, dynamic, and spectacular hysteria made famous in the visual art and psychiatric case histories of the late-nineteenth century which were reinscribed in the late-twentieth century in a spate of feminist commentaries by Helene Cixous (1975), Catherine Clement (1975), Juliet Mitchell (1984) et al., who see in the much photographed, illustrated, and celebrated nineteenth-century hysterics threshold figures for women’s liberation.

Branagh builds on Ophelia’s iconic power by having this character appear in many scenes beyond those specified by Shakespeare’s text.  Branagh’s film puts Ophelia on view in the first court scene; in several interpolated flashbacks to lovemaking with Hamlet; in the “more matter and less art” scene in which Ophelia reads aloud to the King and Queen part of Hamlet’s love letter; in a scene that ends part one of the film and gets repeated at the beginning of part two where she is shown awakened from sleep and still in her nightgown, climbing the gate outside the palace chapel in an outburst of grief and shock at the news of Polonius’s death; during extended versions of her mad scenes; in a brief Millais homage at the end of Gertrude’s report of the drowning; and finally as a very healthy-looking corpse in the graveyard scene.

 Of Winslet's role opposite the physically slight Leonard DiCaprio in the film Titanic (1997), popular reviewers remarked that she is “alot of woman.”  Ophelia's flashbacks to lovemaking with Hamlet in Branagh’s film help to identify her as a cultural representation of the Anglophonic 1990s, in which as the popular film Chasing Amy (1997) also demonstrated, a post-virginal and unmarried young woman could be a romantic lead.  In Branagh's filmed take on Hamlet, the effect of Winslet's representation of Ophelia as 1990s post-virginal romantic protagonist, her appearance in various stages of undress, her sexual expressiveness, and the staging of her madness in the trapping of nineteenth-century iconic hysteria—all confirm Hamlet's heterosexuality and sanity, an effect reinforcing the gender stereotypes carried by the military uniforms which project a strong sense of sexual difference and hetero-sexiness.  The screenplay directions for the state hall procession of the new King Claudius and his Queen Gertrude say, “The men are crisp, sexy.  The military cut--all dashing clothes and hair.  The women's clothes colorful, gloriously textured, shapely and flesh-revealing" (11).  Ophelia makes her first appearance in this scene, dressed in red; and she stands out as modern in the military cut of her jacket, the only woman so dressed.

Her jacket is the same color as the King’s and she stands close to the throne in the formal arrangement of the court formation celebrating the royal wedding.  The red of her costume marks a notable departure from Ophelia’s traditional white, and perhaps recalls for some viewers Zeffirelli’s 1968 costuming of Juliet in menstruation red at the Capulet ball, though, as we soon find out, unlike Olivia Hussey’s Juliet, Kate Winslet’s Ophelia is no virgin.

In part two of Branagh’s film, Ophelia wears a straitjacket, lives in a padded room where she is spied upon, and gets hosed down in a form of Bedlamesque hydrotherapy.  Her ravings and expressive physical exertions from behind the chapel gate suture over the intermission imposed as a break in Branagh’s four-hour version.  Wearing a beige hospital gown and chin-strapped hat that suggest the costume of a Victorian madhouse or an outfit from the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris during its hysteria heyday in the late-nineteenth-century, Winslet in her mad scenes mimes sexual intercourse in a series of passionate expostulations.  During the hydrotherapy scene, we see that she has secreted away in her mouth the key to the door out of her padded cell. Her mad displays in the grand stateroom upstage the King and Queen.  Having the key in her mouth may suggest that if her speech were not regarded as “nothing,” she might be able to unlock herself from confinement, except that when she does free herself, she ends up a victim of drowning and her dead body becomes an object of contention between Hamlet and Laertes.

 In his 1992 stage performances of Hamlet, directed by Adrian Noble for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre in London, Branagh as Hamlet carried a straitjacket early in the play after meeting the ghost.  From stage to screen, Branagh’s straitjacket transferred from Hamlet to Ophelia, leaving him devoid of the role of patient or madman, a transference consistent with late-twentieth century readings of Ophelia’s structural role in Act V of Shakespeare's play as splitting off Hamlet’s femininity, madness and suicidal drive (e.g. Leverenz, 1978; Schiesari, 1992).  Branagh’s Hamlet on film shows neither madness nor gender conflict.  Ophelia’s distress in Branagh’s film seems as much a consequence of Polonius’s collusions with Claudius as of Hamlet’s conflicted relation to his parents.  Hamlet regards her as a betrayer and physically drags her around in the nunnery scene, but she manages to maintain her composure at the play within the play.  Not until her father is murdered does she lose her mind. 

A much remarked feature of Branagh’s film uses flash cuts to supply exposition.  These include scenes of Hamlet in bed with Ophelia. The interpolated love scenes exude mainstream Hollywood allure and play off resurgent female power in the liberated 1990s vis-à-vis the patriarchal 1980s.  These scenes serve the film in multiple ways.  Firstly, they act out with clarity what is being said, suiting actions to characters’ words so that a wide audience can grasp Branagh’s version of the story and in so doing focus on Hamlet’s sanity and heterosexuality.  Secondly, these interpolations help to articulate a multidimensional plot shared with Ophelia, and center the audience’s attention on an otherwise relatively marginal character, giving Winslet greater screen time. 

Branagh’s Hamlet film cuts to Kate Winslet as Ophelia in bed with Hamlet during Polonius's warning her against giving too credent an ear to Hamlet's tenders of affection (I.iii). The “Flash cut” to “Interior / BEDROOM Night” shows a close-up scene of Hamlet and Ophelia “as they make tender love.”  By exposing what one might conclude is behind Ophelia’s eyes, this interpolated scene of erotic intimacy plays off her panicky proximity to Polonius's gaze as he probes into her relationship with Hamlet.  It shows the audience that Hamlet and Ophelia have been lovers, and incarnates exactly what Polonius fears and forbids.

For some viewers, this incarnation of “tenders of affection,” in its first showing at least, leaves open the question of whose mind's eye originates the scene, which appears to embody Ophelia’s thoughts.  She has just told her father that Hamlet has “of late made many tenders/ Of his affection.”  As she responds to Polonius’s “Do you believe his ‘tenders’ as you call them?” with “I do not know, my lord, what I should think,” Branagh’s screenplay reads, “they make tender love” (Branagh, 1996: 26-27).   David Kennedy Sauer asks whether this is Ophelia's memory, her fantasy, or her father's fantasy (1997: 331-332). The scene’s romantic view of love and its repetition and extension during the reading aloud of Hamlet's love letters to the King and Queen, and then its recall (a flashback to the first interpolation) during Ophelia's first mad scene ultimately affirm it as Ophelia's flashback.  At its first appearance therefore, one may say that this flash cut tells the audience that Hamlet and Ophelia have consummated their love.  By showing us what is in Ophelia's mind during her father's admonition, it explains her panic and contrasts her erotic intimacy with Hamlet to her father's aggressive proximity as he corners her in Branagh’s version of the confessional.

Because it is lit and shot like a Hollywood romance, it is difficult to interpret this flash cut as if Polonius and not Ophelia were its center of consciousness.  It seems indeed to manifest an omniscient narrator able to shift in and out of characters’ consciousnesses. Flashbacks and flash cuts in films usually generate a reality effect, even when what they represent may turn out to be fictional.  David Kennedy Sauer identifies the omniscient narrative perspective of the film as that of the ghost, since only the ghost could have known all the facts shown to the movie audiences, an insight that appears to look beyond Branagh, and which seems to be contradicted by the flash cut showing Hamlet stabbing Claudius in the ear, which of course then turns out to be Hamlet’s fantasy and not what happened.  Would that then deconstruct all the flash cuts into indeterminacy?  The film overlooks this problem, as it does the problem created by the snow scene showing the king poisoned through the ear in his winter garden.  Everyone at court apparently believes the tale that the old King was stung by a serpent whereas most Danes would know that serpents do not live in snow.  (Branagh’s text consultant Russell Jackson said this oversight occurred because “We just weren’t thinking.”  Apparently, this production had no room for the idea that the ghost lacks veracity.)  Such problems are forgotten in Branagh’s show and tell techniques aimed at a wide audience.  His film’s projection of clarity and sanity in adhering to the ghost’s version of events leave elements of Shakespeare’s atmosphere of mystery, ambiguity, and dissimulation undramatized, and make Hamlet an Enlightenment Prince rather than a Renaissance intellectual trapped in medieval corruption. 

The presentations of Hollywood-style scenes of naked lovers serve Branagh's appeal to popular audiences, and enlarge the role of Kate Winslet, a figure attractive at the box office.  Though Ophelia has never been treated as a minor character in Hamlet, she has rarely been given the time or prominence she has in Branagh’s film.  Combined with Branagh’s use of flash cuts to fill out the narrative carried by Rufus Sewell as Fortinbras and the interpolations of the scene in which King Hamlet is poisoned, the enlarging of the screen time devoted to Ophelia shows how Hamlet's fate is a complex, multipersonal effect; and it emphasizes his political marginality in Denmark.

Recognizability appears to be a major issue in Branagh’s Hamlet film production, especially evident in the celebrity casting.  Ken Dodd as Yorick, John Mills as Old Norway, David Attenborough as the English Ambassador, Rosemary Harris as the Player Queen, John Gielgud as Priam, and Judy Dench as Hecuba give the film deep roots in the history of English-speaking stage and screen performance.  Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Jack Lemmon, and Charlton Heston are famous though Crystal and Heston in particular had not been profitable names at the box office for some time.  They make good vehicles for invoking a tradition and breaking from it at the same time.

David Kennedy Sauer thinks Branagh decenters the play from Hamlet per se as a postmodernist move to bring marginal characters stage center, implied by the casting of well-known film actors Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, and Robin Williams in minor roles as, respectively, Marcellus, the First Gravedigger, Reynaldo, the Player King, and Osric.   Devotion of screen attention though interpolations illustrating the thoughts and stories of characters surrounding Hamlet, combined with the celebrity aura carried by well-known screen actors in minor roles, increases the recognizability factor in Branagh's representation of the play.  The caliber of the cast, the grand manner of the art direction and the music, the 70 mm format, the special effects, and the full presentation of the four-hour text point to Branagh’s ambitions for this film’s place in cultural history.  With regard to Branagh’s art of the relationship between theatrical conventions and film, Jacek Fabiszak (1999) observes that Branagh’s horizontal Oscar-statue pose as Hamlet’s corpse in its coffin at the end of the film seems to allude to the success of the 1948 Olivier film, which won four Academy Awards. (Despite its grandeur, Branagh’s Hamlet garnered no Oscar.)

At the time Branagh cast his Hamlet on film, Winslet was relatively new vis-à-vis the rest of the already-famous cast and she had never before done Shakespeare, so one may wonder about the circumstances of this particular casting choice, for which Emma Thompson appears to be an absent presence.  Extra-filmic, contextual dimensions bearing on the way Hamlet on film changes between the 1960s and 1990s would seem specious and extraneous if Branagh, like Richardson and Zeffirelli before him, did not seem to want to flaunt so boldly his cast, their performance histories, and their extra-filmic associations. Branagh banked on audience ascription of off-screen personae or star personae to the characters based on the actors playing them. 

 Sense and Sensibility was Winslet's only breakout role up to the time she was cast as Branagh’s Ophelia.  Her roles previous to Ophelia on film were as romantic "sensibility" in the Ang Lee/Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility, based on Jane Austen’s novel, and as the very modern Sue Bridehead in Jude, the Michael Winterbottom adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure, released a few months before Branagh’s Hamlet film.  Her performance history invokes her frightening, mother-killer lesbian character in Heavenly Creatures, her 1994 debut.  Winslet was apparently cast as Ophelia on the strength of Sense and Sensibility, which placed her in the uncomfortable job of working with Thompson and Branagh in close succession after their famous divorce, a frequent topic of popular-press articles surrounding Hamlet when it premiered. 

The sex scenes were central to gossipy questions from reporters along lines of "Did you feel like you were betraying your friend?”  These friends roomed together during the filming of Hamlet (Nickson, 1997: 210).  The role of Ophelia had been performed by Sophie Thompson, Emma’s younger sister, in Branagh’s Renaissance Theatre Company radio drama produced in association with the BBC in 1992. 

The film’s interpolations showing Ophelia in bed with Hamlet may be construed as a bold gesture for Branagh so soon after being wrung out in the British tabloids as a philanderer with Helena Bonham-Carter, the girlish former Ophelia in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet film and someone whom film audiences still associated closely with Branagh's ex-wife Emma Thompson, with whom Bonham-Carter had starred and been outshone by (in acting accolades) in Howards End (1992), for which Thompson won an Academy Award for best actress.

Calling attention to Ophelia in the form of Winslet and thus away from Gertrude, Branagh cast Julie Christie, icon of a previous generation whom he coaxed out of retirement, against himself and Winslet, whereas Zeffirelli had cast Mad Max (1979/Lethal Weapon (1987-1992) Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close as Gertrude (two actors who came to popular prominence at just the same time), with Close just two years after the highly eroticized one-two punch of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Dangerous Liaisons (1988). According to Murray Biggs, Zeffirelli, outdoing Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film, “makes no bones about translating the Oedipal theme into a full-blown, vulgarized, traditional screen romance between coevals" (1992: 61).  Glenn Close as Gertrude, and Mel Gibson as Hamlet (born 1947 and 1956, respectively) appear to be close in age, whereas Helena Bonham-Carter (born 1966) appears to be a generation younger in the role of Ophelia. It is Glenn Close as Gertrude who radiates as the female polarity of power in Zeffirelli’s Hamlet.  The sexual climax of this film occurs between Hamlet and Gertrude in her closet after the play within the play, not in Hamlet’s scenes with Ophelia, which appear to be warm-ups for this main event.

Zeffirelli filmed the closet scene by firelight as a violent, rape-like struggle with Hamlet mounting and thrusting his body against Gertrude as if in "the rank sweat of [the] enseamed bed" (III.iv.93) shared by Gertrude and Claudius.  Glenn Close as Gertrude appearing to be in terror of being murdered, she is driven onto her back on the royal bed by Hamlet’s drawn sword and then attacked by his pelvic thrusts.  She attempts to calm Hamlet’s rage and counter his physical assault by forcing a passionate kiss on his mouth.

      No such erotic passion and no madness appear between Hamlet and his mother in Branagh’s film.  Having found Oedipal readings of Hamlet “unseemly,” Branagh’s staging names but does not show “the sweat of an enseamed [greasy] bed."  The passion in Branagh’s version of the closet scene appears to be moral, not sexual.  Branagh and Christie discourse on and on as he harshly lectures her in a brightly lit setting, bearing out Samuel Crowl's characterization of the film as "a clean, well-spoken place" (2003: 135).

On a metacinematic level, the presence of stars in minor roles gives Branagh's Hamlet film what David Kennedy Sauer identifies as a delightful double effect to their performances, an effect also to be found in Branagh’s (1989) Henry V film, which appears to have cast old stars against younger actors, Paul Scofield (as the King of France) and Derek Jacobi (as the Chorus) in one realm, and the newer players Branagh (as Henry) and Brian Blessed (as Exeter) in another, suiting the play’s fiction, in which the youthful Henry intrudes on the old and settled feudal order of France (Sauer, 1997: 329).      Likewise, the passing of mainstream performance power from the older generation (Jacobi and Christie to Branagh and Winslet) inheres in the Branagh’s casting of Hamlet.

Julie Christie in performance carries the film history of Doctor Zhivago, directed by David Lean (1965), an association relevant to the Branagh’s snow scenes and the storming of the Winter Palace, his 70 mm format, and the elaborate art direction of both these British films.  Branagh represents, by costuming and art direction, the transition from monarchies to military juntas in turn-of-the-century European history.  The costumes used for the soldiers in the scene in which the Norwegian army crosses Denmark on the way to attack Poland are the same ones used in David Lean’s famous 1965 epic film of the Russian revolution, based on Boris Pasternak’s novel.  Julie Christie’s performance as Lara in that screen epic, for those who recall it, gives her Gertrude an austerity and solemnity contrasting with Glenn Close’s desperation and passion in her performance as Hamlet’s mother in Zeffirelli’s film.  Branagh's use of white confetti in the first court scene, which suggests snow when associated with the white winter scenes of the rest of the film, recalls the snow scenes of Doctor Zhivago.  The whiteness of the scenery in Lean's film contrasts with the passionate love story between Lara and Zhivago, a technique Branagh adopts for his Hamlet film, in which firelight glows in the scenes of Hamlet and Ophelia in bed but not in the closet scene between Hamlet and his mother.

Pitching the film to a popular audience in deploying dominant American cultural constructions of sexuality as mainstream Hollywood films have codified them, Branagh suppresses the gender ambiguity of Hamlet implicit in Shakespeare's text (Starks, 1998).  Whereas Shakespeare’s Hamlet mopes “Like John-a-dreams” and unpacks his heart with words “like a whore” and falls “a cursing like a very drab, / A stallion [male prostitute] (III.i.568, 585-588), Branagh’s Hamlet is bold and resolute, untroubled by the ambiguities of an Oedipal attachment to Gertrude and decidedly not mad either.  The old joke, “Was Hamlet sleeping with Ophelia?  --‘In my company, always,’ answered Tyrone Guthrie,  ‘when he wasn't sleeping with Horatio,’” does not work for Branagh’s film.  Not only does Ophelia have three flashbacks remembering lovemaking with Hamlet (which arguably could be construed, though wrongly, I think, as fantasies), their physical relationship seems to be more or less open knowledge among members of the palace guard, who invade her bedroom looking for Hamlet after the play within the play.  A departure from the two previous outstanding film interpretations of Hamlet, Olivier’s in his 1948 film and Mel Gibson’s performance in Zeffirelli’s film, Branagh’s Hamlet is not excessively attached to this mother, and clearly has a strong, sincere, and embodied attachment to Ophelia.  His aggressions against her in the nunnery scene look to be the actions not of a madman, as Samuel Crowl has observed, but those of a spurned lover.  Branagh’s flashbacks to scenes of Gertrude’s adultery during King Hamlet’s reign and to the acted-out scene of the poisoning of the old king make Hamlet’s dwellings on his mother’s sexual transgression and his uncle’s deceit seem clearly motivated.  Branagh’s audience actually sees what had been left more or less to imaginings, some of them vague, in earlier Hamlet performances where adultery is implied but not shown. Branagh’s version of the story is less murky, better illuminated than Shakespeare’s, and so Branagh’s Hamlet seems less conflicted, less ambiguous, and less mysterious.  Although Shakespeare's Hamlet alludes to the “heart of [his] mystery” and says he is obscure to himself, Branagh's performance renders him a military prince of clear, sane, normative mind and unambiguous, masculine gender  (Crowl, 2006: 133).

Winslet's Ophelia, physically and socially a grown woman, enacts a 1990s departure from the 1980s adolescent girl portrayed by Zeffirelli's direction of Helena Bonham-Carter in this role.  Zeffirelli’s Ophelia seems to be driven mad by Hamlet’s abuse.  Lines transposed from the nunnery scene to the end of the play within the play provide an occasion for Gibson aggressively to plant a mocking, hostile kiss on the lips of Bonham-Carter, who pales in shock as tears roll down her face, an apparent victim of emotional double-binding.  The idea of madness as a response to emotional double messaging came to prominence in the 1970s through the writings of R. D. Laing, following D.W. Winnicott and Harold F. Searles.  In Zeffirelli’s film, the idea of Ophelia as a victim of Hamlet’s double binding of her combines with the idea of mental breakdown as a response to traumatic sexual abuse in childhood.  The 1980s witnessed media frenzy over child abuse.  Psychotherapist and social worker reports of recovered memories and overzealous diagnoses of multiple personality disorders fueled the furor, which gained momentum from the popularized work of Alice Miller, and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s much-discussed Assault on Truth (1984).  This trend in psychiatric history seems to have shaped Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia.

 In her mad scenes, the girlish Bonham-Carter looks to be an epitome of the preoccupation with what Joan Acocella analyzes brilliantly as child abuse/recovered memory hysteria in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, when patriarchal thinkers called neoconservatives were back in the saddle again.  In 1987, widely-publicized recovered-memory hysteria broke out in Cleveland, England.  Acocella argues that the ensuing frenzy around child abuse as a cause for what she shows was a manufactured psychiatric diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, gave cultural permission for a decade-long look up the dresses of little girls, a reading consistent with Bonham-Carter’s girlish madness, which includes a playful, childish entrance into her first mad scene in which she then strokes the belt pendant of a soldier on guard duty while he squirms under the gaze of those in the palace above him. A figure of child-like vulnerability, Bonham-Carter as Ophelia seems to be a doomed victim of sexual abuse mischievously replaying a taboo scene before skipping pathetically toward death. 

Winslet, in contrast, performs Ophelia as a mature and resourceful young woman. Even in her mad scenes, she appears to be physically healthy and strong. In her facial features, proportions, and screen presence, one may say that Winslet’s Ophelia embodies for the 1990s what Helena Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia represents for the 1980s: the way that, as Showalter has argued for earlier Ophelias, Shakespeare’s famous young madwoman evolves with the history of gender psychology, showing how gender differences and images of femininity are constantly being renegotiated and reinterpreted as historical conditions change.  The three-actress sequence of Faithfull, Bonham-Carter, and Winslet illustrates an iconic historical pageant of distressed femininity.  The differences between Faithfull, Bonham-Carter, and Winslet as performers of Ophelia show how the figure of Shakespeare’s young madwoman evolves from the 1960s through the 1990s, and they demonstrate a dialectic of female sexuality in history in which the ethereal appeal of nascent confrontational feminism of the 1960s yields to a child victim narrative in the 1980s, and gets superseded by images of a more substantial though thwarted entry of women into public life during the 1990s.  Winslet plays the mad Ophelia as a nineteenth-century style “grand” hysteric emphasizing the power of female embodiment to hold the gaze of the viewer and to find a key to liberation in her mouth, a 90s icon; Bonham-Carter, an 80s icon, plays her as a child victim of emotional double-binding and sexual trauma; Faithfull plays her as drugged, confrontational, rebellious youth who deploys her musical voice and pop icon status as confrontational power in a strange alliance with aging male students.   The madness of Faithfull’s Ophelia seems to express how it feels to be in lightheaded youthful rebellion among corrupt grownups; the madness of Bonham-Carter’s Ophelia expresses a traumatized adolescent state of mind rooted in sexual transgression; the madness of Winslet’s Ophelia expresses a womanly conflict between allegiance to one’s father and physical passion for an hierarchically-superior lover.

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Dianne M. Hunter "From Ethereal Confrontation to Child Abuse to Womanly Conflict: Ophelia in Three Late-Twentieth Century Films". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2008, Published: December 31, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Dianne M. Hunter