Empty your mind of the images of Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Benedict Cumberbatch or Ethan Hawke as Hamlet. If you’ve seen any of the several depictions of the Shakespearean classic, you’ll be required to return to a blank canvas to embrace Ophelia, which presents us with what Hamlet would look like if told through the eyes of his oft-forgotten, ill-fated love interest.
It’s based on the young-adult novel (of the same name) by Lisa Klein and brought to the screen by Australian director Claire McCarthy. In this telling we meet Ophelia as a poor but sassy youngster who finds favour with Queen Gertrude and becomes one of her most sought-upon ladies-in-waiting.
She finds herself with a front-row seat to the drama that surrounds the Danish Royals. A dead king, extramarital affairs, suspected foul-play and an appetite for revenge are just the shortlist of hurdles that stand between Ophelia and true love.
Daisy Ridley has the spotlight as Ophelia. Her version is clever, careful and headstrong. Ridley does well to create an interesting and likable character given that the audience is told little more than that she enjoys solo swims, is literate and wears flowers in her hair. She builds her character through brief exchanges with her brother (Tom Felton) and father (Dominic Mafham), to whom the script, unfortunately, doesn’t devote enough time.
For her part, Naomi Watts gives you more than you bargain for as the queen who feels past her prime and invisible to her husband. Clive Owen stars as Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius (or the evil Scar, for those fresh from the Lion King comparison) and relishes his role as the villain, proffering convincing sword fights and booming commands to perfection.
Meanwhile, Hamlet (played by George MacKay) seems relegated to one of the less shiny stars in the film, perhaps intentionally.
Ophelia is a story that’s new twists and ending surprisingly delivers a feminist voice to a modern audience. It’s theatrical, beguiling and beautifully shot, featuring elegant costume design, staging and generally thoughtful mis en scene.
The pacing is swift but not always smooth and the score, though a touch too overwhelming at times, heightens the drama. The language has been modernised just enough that it all matches and is easy enough to understand without seeming out of place in its setting. It omits and re-works most of Hamlet’s better-known lines though, so if that’s a deal-breaker for you then don’t bother buying a ticket.
In short, it serves up probably exactly what you imagined when you first heard this was another perspective of a Shakespearean classic, but little else. Cinematically, it’s uninspired. Apart from the novel viewpoint, it all feels as though it’s been done before and more memorably. And to be fair, it has, by Julia Stiles, Kate Winslet and Helena Bonham Carter, just to name a few.
Ophelia would have benefited from greater character development and a less convoluted story but it’s entertaining and well-acted enough to justify its existence.
When you take on Shakespeare, the stakes are high because the critics are many and this middle-of-the-road adaptation is not bold enough to leave a lasting impression. Given it’s based on young adult fiction, though, rather than an actual Shakespearean masterpiece, maybe we should’ve seen this coming.
SEE IT if…
You’re up for drama in any form
You’re a big Clive Owen fan
SKIP IT if…
You’re expecting Romeo and Juliet
You don’t think anyone should mess with Shakespeare
It gets 3 stars out of 5.
Not your thing? Read another review.