Ophelia is one of Hamlet‘s most vital characters — and, in the eyes of Ophelia the movie — one of its most misunderstood. Director Claire McCarthy uses Lisa Klein’s eponymous 2006 novel as the source for reimagining this tragic figure, telling the Hamlet story from the tragic character’s point of view, all with Star Wars ingenue Daisy Ridley in the title role.
Shakespeare didn’t give us a whole lot of backstory on Ophelia, but McCarthy, Klein, and screenwriter Semi Chellas, a Mad Men alum, start out well before Shakespeare did, reinventing Ophelia as an unruly, neglected urchin, taken into Elsinore Castle by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and King Claudius (Clive Owen). Her wild streak sets her apart from the other ladies in waiting at Elsinore (the girl goes swimming in her underwear, for God’s sake), which draws the attention of young Hamlet (George MacKay), played here as less of a tortured soul obsessed with his dead father and more of a doughy, clueless rube who’d rather be texting if only he was born 500 years later. (Midway through the film, I swear he shows up in goth eye shadow.)
Ophelia starts off slowly, but it builds up a certain momentum that, at least, liberal fans of the play may be able to appreciate. The big conceit here is that Ophelia is inserted into a number of classic scenes in which she doesn’t traditionally appear, with others invented from whole cloth, all designed to provide a uniquely female perspective to the goings-on — namely, if you don’t recall your Shakespeare — that Hamlet suspects Claudius of poisoning Hamlet’s father, marrying Hamlet’s mother, and stealing the crown. That would mess up a kid, I’m sure, but Ridley and MacKay don’t have enough chemistry together to really believe that she might have empathy for Hamlet in order to generate an opinion on the matter.
As things get going, and Ophelia goes “crazy” — another one of the conceits of the film being that she’s saner than we all think — so does the story. The apex of this is when Ophelia visits a witch in the woods (also played by Watts and revealed to be Gertrude’s long-lost sister), a key change to the story that dramatically impacts its final reel and which can’t be further disclosed for fear of spoiling the funnest/weirdest part of the experience. Whether this all works is up for debate, but I will say it would take a better writer than me to take a stab at rewriting Shakespeare’s greatest play.
While McCarthy has attempted to linguistically modernize the story — though keeping it set in its original 14th century Denmark, complete with lush art direction — the characters are still prone to speechifying in between costume balls and bouts of swordplay. Owen is particularly hammy but fun, and Watts does a credible job as Ophelia’s mother figure.
The focus, of course, is all on Ridley, and while she makes the most of the situation she’s in, even she often seems a little incredulous about the machinations into which she’s been thrown, Hamlet turned from a brooding cautionary tale into something much more sensationalist — and just a little bit silly. Then again, given her work in Star Wars, she ought to be used to that.