Friends, critics, countrymen, I come to offer faint praise for Ophelia, not to bury her. See? Lifting from several of Shakespeare’s greatest works is pretty fun (and kind of sloppy). Just ask Australian director Claire McCarthy (Little Hands, The Waiting City) and Canadian screenwriter Semi Chellas (whose credits include a few indies as well as a few critically acclaimed Mad Men episodes), who used YA author Lisa Klein’s book of the same name as the blueprint for their audacious, intoxicating, but not entirely successful retelling of Hamlet from a decidedly feminist point of view. When it takes a film over a year and a half to hit theaters after premiering at Sundance, you can rest assured that something at least partially rotten in Denmark.
Centering the story around Ophelia (Daisy “Rey” Ridley) rather than the crazed prince of Denmark isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but McCarthy and Chellas stumble by applying a rather heavy-handed, reverent tone to the proceedings. Much like last year’s Mary Queen of Scots, the film positions itself as a liberating rewrite of ancient history without bothering to poke or prod at the stiff period-drama format. (I guess we can’t all be The Favourite.) In Ophelia — Shakespeare’s famously passive victim of a figure who drowns herself in a pond, despondent over her father’s recent murder, her brother Laertes leaving for France, and being jilted by her lover, Hamlet — the filmmakers fashion a defiant, unconventional heroine who’d perhaps feel more at home in a Louisa May Alcott novel. Jo March, anyone?
Ridley’s Ophelia is an introspective tomboy who’s always on the outside looking in (often literally). As a young woman, she’s denied an education, and envies her brother Laertes (Tom “Draco” Felton) as she watches through the window of his schoolroom; as she gets older, she’s looked down upon by her fellow ladies in waiting in the Danish palace, who gossip about her within earshot; and as a person of more humble origins, she’s forced to watch from across the room as her beloved Hamlet (George MacKay) dances with a woman that his father, the king, has deemed a more suitable match. Ridley is perfectly fine in the role, but she’s overshadowed by Naomi Watts’ much showier performance as Queen Gertrude, a sort of surrogate mother figure to Ophelia, who lost her real mother when she was young. (The less said about a somnambulant, shaggy-haired Clive Owen as Claudius, the better.)
(Spoilers in this paragraph.) Where Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship is concerned, Chellas and Klein borrow liberally from Romeo and Juliet, right down to the plot points about the young lovers drinking poison (crafted by a witch/healer — also played by Watts — straight out of Macbeth) and people faking their own deaths. We do get that iconic image of Ophelia wading into the water, flowers in her hair, ready to sink into the depths, signaling what would be the end of the story, at least the way the bard told it, but there’s more: After a powerful and rather long fade to black, Ophelia revives herself, defying the original ending that was written for her hundreds of years ago. Through her voice-over delivered in the denouement, we learn that Ophelia has lived to raise a daughter of her own, and it’s to this young girl that Ophelia is imparting her wisdom.
If all that sounds like it combines to be pretty muddied and rather maddening, well, it is, but things aren’t quite as grim as they seem. McCarthy, cinematographer Denson Baker, production designer Dave Warren, and composer Steven Price have combined their powers to lend a dreamy, slightly haunting, richly textured fairytale-like atmosphere to Ophelia that make the entire thing worth recommending, if only faintly.