Ophelia is a sly take on a Shakespearean character
There have been many reworkings of Shakespeare's plays, and the notion of the canny period drama, Ophelia, is that of retelling Hamlet from a female point of view. The film, which opens June 28 in select theaters, will also be available on digital and on demand July 3.
"You may think you know my story," says the title character (Daisy Ridley) in the opening voiceover, but director Claire McCarthy's brisk film, written by Sami Chellas (adapting Lisa Klein's novel) insists viewers do not.
What Ophelia does, with the moxie of its plucky heroine, is reconsider key elements of Willie-the-Shake's tragedy through a feminist lens. By giving Ophelia agency, she helps her perhaps indecisive lover (George MacKay) see the truth behind the court intrigue—as when she discovers evidence pointing to Hamlet's father's murder. Much of the action, set in the 14th century but spoken in modern language, is compelling, especially when there is friction between the characters. When nothing is rotten in the state Denmark—e.g., a lovely secret marriage montage—the film slackens. And while the imagined backstory is occasionally more interesting than the reimagined Hamlet narrative, the conceit can feels forced when Ophelia clues Hamlet into things she's learned.
A tomboy in her youth, Ophelia is introduced as a rascal who soon becomes one of Gertrude's (Naomi Watts) ladies-in-waiting. Of course, she does not fit in with the others—in part because she's poor; in part because she can read. But Ophelia is shrewd, quick to gain Gertrude's confidence and also beautiful enough to attract Hamlet. When the young couple dance, and drink, and kiss, it is a sweet romance. When things between them hit a snag, Ophelia's emotions drive her actions. It is through her service to the queen—which includes meeting the witch, Mechtild (Watts in a double role) and watching Claudius (Clive Owen) worm his way into Gertrude's heart and become King—that prompts Ophelia to think, speak, and act.
Ophelia hits all the play's highlights, albeit from a slightly oblique perspective. When Ophelia's father, Polonius (Dominic Mafham), is killed by accident, the impact of this death has a different meaning when seen through Ophelia's eyes. The film may enhance high school student's appreciation of Hamlet by adding a layer of understanding, but Ophelia is no substitute for the original—nor is this film destined to become a classic.
McCarthy does imbue her drama with some style, using the castle and its environs for most of the action. There are also fabulous period costumes and sets, and a nifty sequence when Hamlet puts on a play to try to catch the conscience of the King. But the filmmaker needlessly includes some visual effects and features a score that seems off-kilter. (One piece of music sounds like ersatz Enya; another sounds too contemporary).
Nevertheless, Ridley delivers an engaging performance in the title role, handling her madness scenes with noticeable aplomb. Likewise, Naomi Watts distinguishes herself as the vain Gertrude—a scene of her displeased by a tapestry is terrific—and as the mystical Mechtild, a character not in the original play. In support, George MacKay is charming when Hamlet is being flirtatious though less surefooted when he's playing "Hamlet." As the mischievous Claudius, Clive Owen leans into being the villain of the piece, at times chewing the scenery.
Ophelia includes all the elements of Shakespeare's work: there is some gentle bawdiness, some swordplay, and even some minor gender-bending. It is a film that pays homage to its source material while trying to carve out a place of its own. Ultimately, Ophelia is uneven, but it is not entirely unsuccessful.