Audiences are treated to a new telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just not a particularly worthwhile one.
Alternative takes on classic material are always welcome when they offer a unique perspective, but they’re also a high-wire act beset on all sides by traps, constantly one false move away from narrative disaster. In Claire McCarthy’s adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel Ophelia, audiences are treated to a new telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, just not a particularly worthwhile one.
Daisy Ridley stars in the titular role, with a character long felt to be given short shrift in the original work being repositioned to the center. But where Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” expands the scope of the initial play with wit and charm and invention, Ophelia seems singularly focused on trying to make its leading lady into a towering hero who winds up coming off as little more than an overblown “Game of Thrones” background player. This is a movie that exists solely to assuage the long held concerns of drama kids who never liked the way Ophelia fit into Hamlet’s story, but it appeases them in a way that would be embarrassing even if this were merely fanfiction on Tumblr.
It’s hard to imagine revisiting Hamlet and wanting for prequel material, seeing he and Ophelia as children, or expanding the mythology to include a twin sister for Gertrude (both played by a weirdly entertaining Naomi Watts), or to rejigger scenes in the play to interlace a laughable cat and mouse game plot that gives Ophelia more to do, but never feels real or vital. It all amounts to a film that never stops feeling pointless or awkward, never having anything useful to say about the material it seeks to build upon or becoming its own independent thing that can stand on its own two feet.
It’s a reminder that as much as we all want mainstream storytelling to evolve and offer better narratives for women, that the sort of blunt force plot trickery and questionable characterization employed in this film are a lateral move at best, moving the goal post, sure, but not accomplishing much anyone could reasonably connect with along the way.
Beyond the overwrought musical score and an under-budgeted look that makes the film look and feel like an episode of the children’s historical program “Wishbone,” Ophelia at least features a host of actors trying their best with undercooked material. Ridley is captivating in the role, and shows interesting chemistry with the otherwise inert actor portraying Hamlet (George MacKay), but it’s really Watts and a supremely rough looking Clive Owen as Claudius who steal the show.
With Dougie’s hair from “Twin Peaks: The Return” and the decision to play the thieving King like a low-grade MCU villain, Owen has so much fun being an unrepentant bastard that Hamlet’s melodramatic bombast feels completely warranted. This dude is a profound piece of shit who chews every last crumb of scenery in his sight, making the viewer wish everyone else involved was willing to have a little bit more fun and look a lot less dour. Sadly, Ophelia has a future as sick day programming a middle school drama or English teacher may leave a sub to subject their classrooms to and little else.