'Ophelia': Film Review | Sundance 2018

Hamlet's lady gets her day.

Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts star in the reshaping of 'Hamlet,' in which the prince’s lady love takes center stage.

Elsinore is a less gloomy place with women in the foreground in Ophelia, an engaging reshaping of Hamlet in which the prince’s lady love takes center stage. Based on Lisa Klein’s well-received 2006 young adult novel, this vigorous, colorful and clever melodrama smartly rethinks both the play and the character, making her a far more proactive figure than Shakespeare did in addition to entirely reimagining her fate. 

With Star Wars leading lady Daisy Ridley playing the title character and dialogue more accessible to a general public than the Bard’s tends to be, this handsome film could score reasonably well with a young and predominantly female audience.

Although the pic will mean more to viewers who know the play than to newcomers, a familiarity with the story is in no way a prerequisite for understanding or enjoying a work so ripe with intrigue, secrets, murder and no end of illicit goings-on. Certainly there’s no fuss or formality in the way Australian director Claire McCarthy (no known relation!) has approached the material, which is, to be sure, serious, but shot through with a youthful verve and keen attention to youthful physical beauty that at moments reminds of Franco Zeffirelli’s highly successful 1968 Romeo and Juliet.

“You may think you know my story,” Ophelia states at the outset, when 15-year-old Prince Hamlet is about for depart school in Wittenberg, but adds, “I was always a willful girl.” Unlike most young females there and then, she’s able to read, a talent that attracts the favor of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who has her recite some racy material to her upon retiring to bed. Favorably impressed with the girl’s qualities, she eventually makes her one of her ladies-in-waiting. Gertrude also becomes increasingly taken with certain special herbs, another matter Ophelia is able to help her with.

With the death of Hamlet’s father, the king, the young man (George MacKay) returns with a reasonable expectation of taking his place on the throne. But Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (a wild-haired Clive Owen) has beat him to it, launching all manner of speculation and suspicion about the late monarch’s demise.

But palace intrigue mostly remains secondary to what Ophelia is up to. She’s not portrayed as an unduly modern girl, exactly, or unrealistically as some kind of proto-feminist. But she has an active brain, a fundamental seriousness that sets her apart, strong observational qualities and a tendency to speak her mind. She knows well enough to do what’s demanded of her, but doesn’t just blankly go along with what’s expected. In this context, she’s an independent thinker, as well as something of a sneak.

Despite using any number of the play’s characters, the early stages of the film stray very far from Shakespeare’s scenes. The opening is a deliberate lift from John Everett Millais’ celebrated 1851-52 painting of Ophelia floating on her back and holding flowers while about to drown, and McCarthy has staged several extravagantly elegant scenes involving the full court at play that are always colorfully diverting.

Ophelia makes repeated visits to a rural witch (also played by Watts) to procure the queen’s mood-enhancers, which the monarch uses with ever-greater frequency, and she’s no wilting lily when it comes to her relations with Prince Hamlet. When he acts like jerk, she sternly warns him, “Do not play with me,” in a way that makes you wonder where she got her spunk and such a sense of self-worth. Fortunately, however, the revision and expansion of the title character never goes so far as to seem downright anachronistic, or like a blatant sop to modern feminist standards. Rather, she seems like a young woman who, early in life, somehow found the strength to speak plainly and not be an unwilling pawn in the stratagems of the royals surrounding her.

To anyone who knows their Shakespeare, it’s impossible at first not to try to correlate what’s onscreen with scenes from the play, to wonder where they will cross paths and then to compare how Shakespeare and his 21st century acolytes handle the same dramatic situations. Also of undeniable interest are the linguistic parallels and divergences, to analyze how the Bard and the present writers cover the same ground.

Fortunately, there are few such direct comparisons to be made. The language in Ophelia is largely elegant and eloquent, but without trying to compete with Shakespeare in any way. It’s to the film’s additional advantage that the story’s focus in the early-going is very different from the play’s. In fact, the pic becomes marginally less effective the more its track comes close to merging with that of the playwright in the final act. But kudos to both Chellas and Klein for writing strongly enough to encourage the viewer to even temporarily forget about the Bard even as we watch his characters enact some deeply familiar scenes.

Adorned with long tresses of rusty-red hair, Ridley compellingly plays Ophelia with great seriousness. For a while, you think the character might be too guarded and stern to fall in love, and couple of moments of levity, or even just relaxation, might have helped create a warmer audience bond with the self-protective character. But one’s sympathy remains with this keenly revisionist take on one of the most famous figure in dramatic literature.

Watts’ Gertrude is smart but vulnerable, having put herself put herself under the thumb of the dangerously aggressive Claudius, played by Owen as a self-centered ruffian.

By contrast, MacKay’s lively and laddish Hamlet is boisterous, athletic and altogether appealing, unburdened as he is of self-doubting soliloquies. Tom Felton, still trying to shed the shade of Draco Malfoy, does nicely as a lithe Laertes.

McCarthy’s staging of the many big scenes is impressively coherent while avoiding trendy flashiness. It’s modern but not anachronistically so in the manner of her fellow Australian Baz Luhrmann.   

Will Desdemona be next?


Production companies: Bobker/Kruger Film, Forthcoming Films
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George MacKay, Tom Felton, Devon Terrell
Director: Claire McCarthy
Screenwriter: Semi Chellas, based on the novel by Lisa Klein
Producers: Daniel Bobker, Sarah Curtis, Ehren Kruger, Paul Hanson
Executive producers: Sasha Shapiro, Anton Lessine, Elissa Friedman, Bert Marcus, Matthew Hart, Alastair Burlingham
Director of photography: Denson Baker
Production designer: Dave Warren
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Luke Dunkley
Music: Steven Price
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

114 minutes