Now that female screenwriters and directors are finally getting the keys to a small corner of the kingdom of movie financing, they’re revisiting the classics – stories we’ve been told many times, characters we think we know. And they’re making radical readjustments.
Their films aren’t an academic exercise, a trick or a kind of cinematic revenge. They’re a necessity. By taking overly familiar stories and characters and revamping them, they make us see that the version we know is only the one we’ve been told over and over again. They make us think about who decided on that version, and why it was perpetuated to the exclusion of all others. When people talk about the value of hearing stories from previously unheard voices, this is what they’re talking about.
Writer Semi Chellas and director Claire McCarthy take a character from the margins of Hamlet and make her the centre of the story in Ophelia (on demand in the United States, coming soon to Canada). In Vita and Virginia, writer Eileen Atkins and writer/director Chanya Button give us fresh, intriguing versions of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, based on their letters to each other. (A Canadian release date in July has been pushed back and yet to be rescheduled.) This November, we’ll see how writer/director Elizabeth Banks reboots a different kind of classic, Charlie’s Angels. (Believe it or not, she’s the first female writer or director to head up this seemingly-so-female franchise, including the original TV series.) And I can’t wait to see how screenwriter Olivia Milch, director Alethea Jones and star Margot Robbie reimagine Barbie, due in 2020.
These films aren’t the first to re-examine a much-told story. The 1993 drama Wide Sargasso Sea, based on Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, focused not on Jane Eyre, but on Rochester’s allegedly mad wife, taking her out of the attic and giving her a full, empathic backstory. (It was directed by a man, John Duigan.) In 1999, Patricia Rozema wrote and directed a Mansfield Park that showed us exactly where the Bertrams’ money came from. But those felt like one-offs. In our era of #TimesUp, the current ones feel like a new beginning.
“How do you suppose Vita will be rendered by her biographer?” Woolf (a very sexy Elizabeth Debicki) asks near the end of Vita and Virginia. “As a diplomat’s wife and celebrated novelist? Or an insatiable lover notorious for her trysts and the torment to which she subjected her poor husband?”
Okay, out of context that sounds a bit on the nose. But it’s a vital question. What did we as a culture gain for all these years by having Sackville-West (Gemma Arterton) sold to us as lightweight, and Woolf as tormented, rather than what they were: successful writers in a mature, complicated relationship? Instead of celebrating their business acumen and boundary breaking, somewhere along the line someone turned them into a cautionary tale – they may be fascinating, but don’t be like them, or you’ll cause scandals and kill yourself.
Similarly, the film Wild Nights with Emily, written and directed by Madeleine Olnek (available on demand) puts the focus where it usually isn’t in stories of Emily Dickinson – on the poet’s busy bed – which forces us to rethink her whole oeuvre and ask ourselves why so many English teachers wanted us to see her as a straight, lonely fantasist, rather than a queer, incendiary genius.
Finally, why, in the thousands of Hamlets you’ve seen and read, is Gertrude always duplicitous, and Ophelia always mad? Are those really the only choices for women? Who wants you to think that way, and why?
“We never thought of Ophelia as a feminist project, more of a creative provocation,” Chellas said in a recent phone interview. “Ophelia is an icon of passivity, and almost everything that happens to her happens off-stage. What if you put her at the centre of the story? Suddenly you’re in the female sphere of the castle. Then suddenly it’s a coming-alive story for both Ophelia and Gertrude.”
Once you start to think of Gertrude’s life as separate from her son’s and husband’s, and stop assuming that Ophelia loves Hamlet, it’s as mind-rattling as this famous reassessment of the story, from William Kerrigan: ''Putting aside the murder being covered up, Claudius seems a capable king, Gertrude a noble queen, Ophelia a treasure of sweetness, Polonius a tedious but not evil counselor, Laertes a generic young man. Hamlet pulls them all into death.''
Almost every part of Ophelia’s story that intersects with Shakespeare’s play is present in Ophelia, but it has a different meaning. Hamlet still wants her to go to a nunnery, but he has a different reason why. Ophelia still acts mad, but now it really is an act. “We get to watch what happens to the characters when they leave the stage,” Chellas says. “We veer off and tell the story in parallel, to show something that hasn’t been seen before.”
Ophelia also asks the question I ask myself at each new Marvel movie: Why does every story have to end with a battle? Must every epic boil down to two people trying to kill each other? What if we chose something other than vengeance?
The new perspectives provided by – not to mention the pure fun of – rethinking the classics is “so obvious once you see it,” Chellas sums up. “But someone has to point you to it.” The more we support diverse storytellers, the more that will happen.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.