‘Ophelia:’ Out from under the shadow of Hamlet
In what could be called a revisionist version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia repositions the point of view to that of its title character, the delicate and doomed heroine whose all-consuming love for the Danish prince Hamlet could save neither.
Adapted from Lisa Klein’s novel by screenwriter Semi Challis and directed by Claire McCarthy, the film details how the fair maiden Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) came to be at Elsinore Castle, how she came to be a lady-in-waiting for Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), how she came to love – and lose – Gertrude’s son Hamlet (George MacKay), and how she became a pawn in the internecine machinations that would ultimately bring the kingdom to ruin. To rephrase one of The Bard’s more quotable lines: All will not end well. Yet anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Hamlet is well aware of that from the outset.
There are, of course, other notable characters who figure prominently, including Hamlet’s brash and ruthless uncle Claudius (Clive Owen), who successfully schemed to win Gertrude and the crown; Ophelia’s status-conscious and ill-fated father Polonius (Dominic Mafham); her brother Laertes (Tom Felton), whose lust for vengeance dovetailed perfectly with Claudius’s plot to eliminate Hamlet; and Hamlet’s faithful but hapless friend Horatio (Devon Terrell).
In what may be a nod to contemporary political correctness and racial diversity, this Horatio happens to be a character of color, but it scarcely matters, one reason being that Terrell gives one of the film’s strongest performances – and in a relatively thankless role, no less.
Ophelia is certainly a feast for the eyes, with top marks going to cinematographer Denson Baker, production designer Dave Warren, and costume designer Massimo Cantini Parrini, and it’s consistently interesting – especially for Shakespeare buffs – to observe how this narrative parallels and adheres to the original Hamlet, and what alterations it makes to that text.
But, in a way, as well-made and respectful as it is, Ophelia is doomed from the start. The towering legacy of Shakespeare’s drama simply looms too large. Even under the best circumstances, it would be almost impossible to equal, much less surpass, Shakespeare. Hamlet is perhaps the most debated and discussed tragedy in the Shakespeare canon, to say nothing of the English language. In no way does this film insult or belittle the Shakespearean source, yet it struggles to find an identity of its own. Were it not for Hamlet, Ophelia would not exist.
By and large, the performances are perfectly sincere and earnest, even if Owen’s “Prince Valiant” hairstyle is distracting. Watts plays not only the betrayed Gertrude but also Ophelia’s secret confidante, the mysterious witch Mechtild. MacKay is serviceable as Hamlet, although ironically he’s playing what is traditionally the “Ophelia” character – nervy, paranoid, consumed by outrage, and something of a shadowy figure in the background. Quite frankly, the story is much more persuasive when told from Hamlet’s perspective. Ophelia is not an uninteresting character, but she’s not as interesting as Hamlet.
The red-haired Ridley brings firm conviction to her role and contributes a song (“Break of Day”) to the proceedings, but Steven Price’s bombastic score – weighted down by the chorale (and Ridley’s number) – sounds as if it belongs in a Marvel movie. Ophelia is hardly without interest, but it just isn’t enough.
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