Handsomely made romance reimagines Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” from Ophelia’s perspective.
The backlash from purists against director Claire McCarthy’s off-kilter take on one of the Bard’s greatest works is unwarranted. I suspect that “Ophelia” will have the effect of driving youngsters to the source material in much the same way that the MCU films have kindled greater interest in comic books. And for the target audience, pre-teen and teenage girls, this tragic romance starring “Star Wars” heroine Daisy Ridley, plays big, inevitably leading to girl-power fist pumps and even a few salty tears.
All the classic Hamlet elements are in place in this adaptation by Semi Chellas of the Young Adult novel by Lisa Klein. Set in medieval Denmark, the focus is on the ill-fated Ophelia (Ridley), who is plucked out of relative poverty to become a lady-in-waiting of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Her single parent father Polonius (Dominic Mafham) is uncomfortable with this new arrangement but has no choice, he is, after all, a dutiful subject. When the murderous Claudius (Clive Owen) assumes power in the wake of the death of the king, Prince Hamlet (George MacKay), the king’s son, is immediately suspect. Claudius’ unseemly relationship with Hamlet’s Queen mother only heightens his simmering anger that threatens to boil over into crazed rage, even as outside forces drive the kingdom to the brink of war.
Meanwhile, Hamlet’s blackened heart is softened by a love affair with the innocent Ophelia. And her brother, Laertes (Tom Felton), lurks about as a sometime protector. We know the sequence of events here. We know Polonius’ fate and the mistake that Hamlet will make, but this time, we see things not through his disturbed mind, but through the eyes of the more sane and less entertaining Ophelia. Navigating the political machinations that either ignore her or disrespect her, she is able to outwit even the outcome penned for her by Shakespeare himself. And like the twist that so prophetically marked the Bard’s “Romeo and Juliet,” Chellas and Klein write a new ending for Ophelia, one that won’t sit well with fans schooled on the classic tragedy.
Does this reimagining work? Yes, and no. It’s certainly well-made and well acted, with a cast that is more than up to the challenge required to sell the significant story departures. Watts plays a dual role (the Queen and her twin sister Mechtild), which is confusing and frustrating, as she shifts from personality to personality. Watts is solid, playing powerless and abused as the monarch and vengeful and scheming as a witchy woman living in the forest outside the castle.
Ridley gives the intentionally bland title role the required star power, but given her strong presence in the “Star Wars” universe, it is tough to buy her tender side. As Ophelia, Ridley is forced to show ignorance and naivety, at least, early on. The character’s romance with Hamlet is credible, but MacKay is never able to go full Hamlet here. Still, this isn’t his story and when the familiar, decisive moments transpire, they take a backseat to Ophelia’s master plan. It’s this part of the reimagined narrative that viewers may reject, as the additions turn the tragedy of “Hamlet” into the romance of “Ophelia.”
It’s fitting that in this age of audio books and blockbuster computer animated epics that Shakespeare gets a complete, almost revisionist makeover. And “Ophelia” may be one of the first of many stabs at repurposing the Great Bard for the teen crowd accustomed to superhero adventures.