Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts and Clive Owen Star in new Hamlet Variation
DIRECTED BY: CLAIRE MCCARTHY/2019
Shakespearean adaptations are pretty common, whether they be period pieces ala Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, or the more recent Macbeth, or if they are modern day updates like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. For the latest Shakespearean adaptation to come to the cinema, director Claire McCarthy has taken a screenplay from Semi Chellas that adapts Lisa Klein’s novel that tells the story of Hamlet from the perspective of the tragic character, Ophelia.
Ophelia (Daisy Ridley; Mia Quiney is the young version) is the daughter of Polonius (Dominic Mafham), the chief counselor of the king, and is sister to Laertes (Tom Felton). Ophelia grows up as a friend to Prince Hamlet (George MacKay; Jack Cunningham-Nuttall is the young version). When Hamlet is sent off to school Ophelia attracts the attention of Hamlet’s mother, the Queen, Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who raises Ophelia in the royal court. When Hamlet returns from school, he is struck by his childhood friend who has grown into a young woman.
The story in Ophelia weaves in and out of the familiar story of Hamlet in which Queen Gertrude’s husband, King Hamlet, is killed by his own brother Claudius (Clive Owen) who desires both the crown and Gertrude. Hamlet sets out for revenge, feigning madness that drives Ophelia into a madness of her own culminating in her own suicide.
Only, Lisa Klein’s novel, and this film adaptation, adds more to the story, with some twists and turns that makes it a unique tale on its own without fundamentally altering the classic story by William Shakespeare. Whether or not you feel the story succeeds will vary based on your reaction to this film. Based upon this test, Ophelia is a decidedly mixed bag.
Ophelia has always been a tragic character. While she loves Prince Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play she becomes increasingly isolated from him. The death of her father at the hands of Hamlet only adds to her sorrow and madness leading her brother to return to get revenge for his father and sister’s deaths by taking up a poisoned sword at now King Claudius’ suggestion, who is trying to conceal his own crimes.
Ophelia, the film, however, alters much of the reasons for Ophelia’s madness, and even flips her suicidal actions into something more. Daisy Ridley gives a good performance as she slowly learns the true trouble that exists in the state of Denmark. Queen Gertrude, a motherly figure Ophelia has always looked up to, sends her on a secret mission that introduces Ophelia to a witch named Mechtild (also played by Watts), who has her own connections to Claudius. It is here that Ophelia learns of a poison that operates much like the one taken by Juliet in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Romeo and Juliet.
As Queen Gertrude is conflicted over her recent marriage to Claudius immediately following the death of her husband, Ophelia falls out of favor with the queen. Her father warns her not to get too close to Prince Hamlet, since they can never be together as she is not royalty. Ophelia has a secret, however, that allows for the tragedy aspects of the original story to still play out, while creating a much stronger title character who is fully in control of her own destiny, and not the fragile victim that Ophelia is often portrayed as in most performances of Hamlet.
On the whole, Ophelia is an interesting enough piece of work that carves out a space to be its own thing, while straining to stay true to the spirit of the original story of Hamlet. It is obviously influenced by more modern tales, with obvious stylistic nods to projects like Game of Thrones, while staying tethered to its original source material of Hamlet. At times, this works well enough, at other times it robs the film of a consistency it so desperately needs.
Like most modern re-tellings of this classic story, Ophelia carries with it the values and notions of the day, just as Shakespeare’s work did for his time. Most notably is the larger role Ophelia plays in this Hamlet adaptation when her position and gender would not allow her to truly accomplish all that she is able to in the film based on the time setting this story takes place in. For a modern audience however, it ultimately tries to be empowering…culminating with Ophelia taking command of herself against her societal norms as demonstrated when she cuts her hair and walks among the royal court unrecognized. This may have been a prime example of trying-too-hard, and it is moments like these that feels out of place, especially to the established story of Hamlet itself, that ends up weakening the film.
This type of modern rendering may help audiences, however, to connect with the multi-faceted angles this tragedy is operating on in a way that a traditional approach might not. Mileage may vary on this point based on one’s knowledge and love of Shakespeare, but from the personal tragedy of the loss of family members and loved ones, to the love story between Ophelia and Hamlet, or as seen in the various political moves being made by the members of the royal family, and also those working in their royal court, all are presented here with a more modern sensibility. For those who are worried, “Shakespearean” English is not employed, but thankfully, neither is modern slang.
Ophelia is now playing at select theaters and available on-demand. It is not masterpiece theater, but it is also not a tragedy either. A stellar cast, and good performances from Ridley and Watts make this a film worth your casual consideration.