10 Directors to Watch: Claire McCarthy Explores Shakespeare’s Feminine Side in ‘Ophelia’

Sundance-annointed helmer challenges the male gaze with unique retelling of 'Hamlet,' focusing on the young lady he drove to madness.

10 Directors to Watch: Claire McCarthy

It’s serendipitous timing that McCarthy’s third feature, “Ophelia,” is being released in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

The film, set in the 14th century but spoken in a contemporary voice, is a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” Based on the novel by Lisa Klein and adapted for the screen by Semi Chellas, it brings Ophelia, the tortured prince’s love interest whose internal conflicts drive her to madness, to the forefront of the story.

Female identity, what it means to be a woman and power dynamics are all themes that McCarthy — who has been with the project for six years — was intent on exploring but found herself fighting for: “In many ways, I wanted to honor the original ‘Hamlet’ and turn the story on its head,” she says. “But that’s been a struggle because it meant putting females in leading roles.” (Debuting in the Premieres section at Sundance, “Ophelia” — the first film to be completed by indie production, finance and sales outfit Covert Media — stars Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts and Clive Owen.)

Looking back, McCarthy says: “It’s a miracle that this project was made. People hear Shakespeare and don’t exactly get excited.” But she never felt like giving up, having already directed two features, 2009 adoption drama “The Waiting City” with Radha Mitchell, and 2007’s “Cross Life.”

“I immediately connected to the material not just because I love ‘Hamlet,’ but because Ophelia is such an undernourished character in the original play,” McCarthy says. “The script made her feel contemporary with big questions” — questions about relationships and gender that up until now have been pushed under the rug.

McCarthy will tackle another realistic heroine this winter when she begins filming “The Personal History of Rachel DuPree” with Viola Davis, opposite Mahershala Ali and Quvenzhané Wallis.

Influences: Ingmar Bergman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Jane Campion, Kathryn Bigelow
Agents: CAA
Lawyer: Eric Feig Entertainment & Media Law