Sometimes a familiar story needs a fresh twist, even if that story is arguably one of the most famous in all of William Shakespeare’s lexicon, Hamlet. Directed by Claire McCarthy and adapted from the novel by Lisa Klein, Ophelia does something rather remarkable and clever: it wonders what the story of the young prince Hamlet would be if it were seen through the eyes of his lady love Ophelia, played with grace, intelligence and far less crazy than we’re used to by Daisy Ridley (of the latest Star Wars trilogy).
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Ophelia’s approach to the tale of Hamlet is that a good portion of the first half of the film takes place before the story of the play begins. We see her life as a handmaiden to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who is married to Hamlet’s father, the King. Ophelia and Hamlet (George MacKay) fall very much in love but just as things begin to get serious between them, he leaves Denmark. After his father’s untimely death/murder, Hamlet returns and Ophelia is, understandably, a bit cold to him, but her feelings haven’t wavered, and she agrees to help him uncover what he believes was a plot by his uncle and now king Claudius (Clive Owen) to kill his father and marry Gertrude.
Aside from familiar moments from the play reworked to show that Ophelia was perhaps more in league with Hamlet than we previously believed (and maybe her insane behavior was a distraction rather than a condition), the film also takes several side trips with Ophelia that are not even hinted at in Shakespeare’s source material. Ophelia befriends a woman named Mechtild, who lives in the woods and might possibly be a witch with an expertise in potions and poisons (and who bears a striking resemblance to Watts).
There are far more bold and shocking changes or reinterpretations to Shakespeare’s text that are going to anger as many as they amaze. The casting of Hamlet and Ophelia as essentially co-conspirators in taking down the current monarchy is nuts, but it also works to a certain degree. Harry Potter’s Tom Felton plays Ophelia’s emotionally charged brother Laertes, who faces off against Hamlet in the film’s final battle (which is also altered a great deal). Director McCarthy ups the fantasy elements of the story just a touch while also boosting certain feminist qualities in Ophelia, who has long been portrayed as a victim. Not so in this telling.
Admittedly, it does feel somewhat sacrilegious to change up Shakespeare so drastically, and there are moments in the film that feel like filler in order to kill time to get to the more familiar sections of Hamlet. But Ophelia isn’t a film that is afraid to take risks. Ridley mostly works as the often confused but still very much in control title character, but her standoffishness at certain points with Hamlet feels unnecessary and pointless, especially since we know where things are going with her…or do we. If nothing else, the movie is a fascinating writing experiment populated by a vibrant cast that you can watch and enjoy, without sacrificing your love of the original Hamlet.
The film opens Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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