Review by Jacqueline Hipes
Women don’t often fare well in Shakespeare’s plays. Although written with as much dimension as the men, they rarely find themselves in a better position at the end of the play than the one they held at the start. At best they find themselves betrothed or married; at worst, dead. (Or should that be reversed?) Ophelia, the young and thinly drawn love interest for doomed Danish prince Hamlet, famously suffers the latter. Her proclaimed importance to the titular character and rapid descent into madness and tragedy provide a rich environment for speculation, one which author Lisa M. Klein plumbed in her 2006 novel, Ophelia. Claire McCarthy brings this retelling to the screen with quite a lot of pomp, and not much in the way of circumstance.
Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) arrives at the Danish royal court half-wild and motherless, longing to join her brother Laertes (Tom Felton) in his studies in the library. Her modern outspokenness catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who offers to take the girl under her wing as a lady-in-waiting and train her in more acceptable womanly arts. As the girl grows into a young woman she barely squeaks by, derided by her fellows for her poor dancing and inornate gowns. Her tomboyish qualities endear Ophelia to Prince Hamlet (George MacKay), whose appearance heralds the introduction of a familiar tragic sequence of events.
Ophelia’s strength lies in the lavishness of its production, eschewing soundstages for real castles and forests. An endless procession of landscaped courtyards and brightly lit chambers provide the perfect stage for what is ultimately a clichéd and contrived drama better suited for a young audience unfamiliar with the original play. Semi Chellas’ screenplay is a hodgepodge amalgamation of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and, oddly, Sleepy Hollow. Entire speeches from the Bard’s play remain intact, while some supporting characters are excised entirely in favor of a feminist sub-plot that raises more questions than cheers. It’s an uneven experience that functions at the greatest imbalance when trying to grant Ophelia a modern woman’s voice and agency, while stubbornly clinging to the plot devices that kept her shackled.
Ridley proves a good choice for the titular maiden, infusing her with a wide-eyed innocence and moral forthrightness that fans of Rey will find familiar. Watts also brings a certain gravitas to Gertrude, enough that one almost wishes we’d gotten her untold story instead.
Their performances and a beautiful production design can’t suffice to sugar over the imagination poorly applied to a character in great need of it. It is no accident that Shakespeare’s plays have endured for centuries. If modern storytellers hope to expand or improve upon them, they must come armed with more than tropes and tired references.