Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts in Ophelia (Photo: IFC Films)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Claire McCarthy
STARS Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts
In every traditional adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s established that there might be a method to the Danish prince’s madness. Has the melancholy son of the murdered king really gone insane in the brain, or is he just feigning craziness as a ruse?
In Ophelia, this mode of madness also applies to its titular character. In the Shakespeare text, Hamlet’s lady love clearly loses her mind and ends up drowning, but in this offbeat offshoot of the original, the waters are more murky than previously imagined. Hard-line traditionalists might clutch their thesis papers and faint, but those interested in radical approaches to art will be amused at how this picture colors in certain details. And until the lamentable denouement, it does so without ever straying outside the margins.
Directed by Claire McCarthy and scripted by Semi Chellas (adapting Lisa Klein’s Young Adult novel), Ophelia offers an imaginative retelling of an acknowledged masterpiece from an alternate POV. Daisy Ridley, best known as the Jedi Rey in the latest round of Star Wars adventures, essays the role of Ophelia, who’s no longer a supporting character in someone else’s show but rather the headliner. Thus, it’s largely through her eyes that we watch the castle intrigue unfold, as young Hamlet (George MacKay) is rocked by the death of his father and suspects that Claudius (Clive Owen, sporting an unfortunate wig seemingly left over from Monty Python and the Holy Grail) was responsible for his demise. But Claudius is now married to Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude (a fiery Naomi Watts), and therefore untouchable, meaning that the prince must go to extraordinary lengths to exact his revenge. As for Ophelia, she’s no passive observer but a key player in the proceedings, ignoring the advice of both her duplicitous dad Polonius (Dominic Mafham) and well-meaning brother Laertes (Tom Felton) and mapping out a course of action that will result in a happily-ever-after for herself and Hamlet. Good luck with that.
There’s great fun in watching the liberties taken by Ophelia and understanding that none of it actually runs contrary to what was set in stone in Shakespeare’s original. (In that way, it has much in common with Tom Stoddard’s celebrated play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.) It’s conceivable that these new sequences taking place at the same time as the ones immortalized in Hamlet could really be occurring, and when the two storylines intersect, they do so in a manner that clicks together like two puzzle pieces. For instance, there’s still that moment when Hamlet orders Ophelia to get to a nunnery — only in this context, it’s not an insult but rather a fabricated argument by two lovebirds mindful that spies are listening to their every word. Even the more outlandish additions can be given the benefit of the doubt, such as when it’s revealed that Queen Gertrude has a twin sister (given this film’s connection to the Star Wars saga via the presence of Ridley, it’s hard not to watch this reveal and immediately flash back to that moment in Return of the Jedi when Darth Vader purrs to Luke, “A sister! Sooo, you have a twin sister!”).
That’s why the final act of Ophelia ranks as such a disappointment. After carefully bridging the gap between the two narratives for almost the entirety, there was an inexplicable decision to suddenly toss the dog-eared Folger Shakespeare Library copy of the play out the window and make everything up. The climactic scuffle differs from the original text in ways that cannot be covered up — for starters, it’s no longer Hamlet who delivers the fatal blow to a major character — and these perplexing plot pirouettes only serve to weaken our admiration for what McCarthy and co. have accomplished up to this moment. What’s the point in someone adhering to meticulously set rules if they’re only going to cheat anyway?
It’s a debilitating flaw but not a destructive one, as the majority of Ophelia is a bold and brainy undertaking that’s definitely worth seeing and admiring. But this lazy, last-minute revision does run counter to the carefully structured storyline that preceded it, and there’s the rub.