Ophelia takes the initial concept of retelling Hamlet from the perspective of its most victimized (and, arguably, most tragic) character, giving her voice and agency and even some command over the plot and tries to morph Hamlet into a tale of a strong-willed young woman determined to find her way. Daisy Ridley is the title character, a girl in the Danish court who acts as lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). Despised by the other ladies-in-waiting due to her “low” birth, Ophelia spends most of her time alone or longing for the education in which her brother, Laertes (Tom Felton), indulges. But as we know, things are rotten in the state of Denmark. The king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen, in an unfortunate wig), wants power for himself and the young prince Hamlet (George McKay) wants Ophelia.
Ophelia has so much potential that it’s a shame it wastes it. Any attempt at psychological depth is abandoned for a teenage melodrama—Hamlet is a doe-eyed boy who falls madly in love with Ophelia practically the moment he sees her again. While the story does follow the basic arc of the play, there’s no screen time spent developing motivation for anyone except the villains—Claudius wants to be king, of course, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want to . . . rape people? There’s some attempt made to develop the relationship between Ophelia and Gertrude and it’s here that Ophelia presents some of its best arguments in depicting two women at the mercy of powerful men, attempting to negotiate that in their own way.
But for a film based on psychologically complex play, there’s a remarkable degree of superficiality here. It presents Hamlet’s drive to take vengeance for his father’s murder as his “duty,” but in the absence of complex characterization, it feels more like he’s going through the motions because that’s what happens. A confusing subplot involving Gertrude’s drug addiction, Claudius’s past liaisons, and a witch in the woods tries to bring in plot points from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and even, for some reason, Twelfth Night, still without attempting any depth characterization or, at this point, plot sense. Most maddening is that Shakespeare provides template for psychological depth, and yet Ophelia manages to render every character so superficially as to be, in places, laughable.
Ophelia also sets certain major scenes off-screen, because Ophelia (in the play) doesn’t witness them. Thus viewers are told of Hamlet’s madness and Polonius’s murder (the formative moments for Ophelia’s arc) rather than seeing them in action. The argument can’t be made that because the plot is focalized through Ophelia, the film cannot show things she does not see, for there are scenes to which Ophelia is not privy—just not the interesting ones.
If the comparisons to Shakespeare seem unfair, it’s worthwhile to point out that the film makes them as well. Ophelia takes away the language—which is understandable—but then renders Shakespearean speeches in “plain” English, resulting in Polonius telling his son to “never lend anyone money” and Hamlet shouting “go to a nunnery!”, as though the script were based on the No Fear Shakespeare version. This does a disservice to the actors, especially Ridley and Watts, who attempt to find nuance in their roles where the script gives them little.
Ophelia’s tragedy is her manipulation by a patriarchal and hierarchal structure that treats her as something to be traded—in the play, Hamlet violently repudiates her after she’s set up as bait to draw him out. Within short order, the man she loves rejects her and then murders her father, a double blow that ends with her madness. Yet these events are rendered entirely moot, and instead Ophelia’s character becomes a cipher apparently untouched by what happens around her. Hamlet is far more important than the beloved father or absent brother, and their romance makes her switch her allegiance to the point that she does not struggle with the fact that he’s murdered her father, even by accident. He’s just totally cute and that’s enough for her.
At best, director Claire McCarthy renders some lovely images as complex as Renaissance paintings, and these depictions of romantic abandon are among Ophelia’s most powerful moments. The film would’ve been better served by fully indulging in these romantic fantasy aspects. If it had been more melodramatic, wilder and romantic, it might have overcome the inherent silliness of the script to create something gorgeous, passionate, and over-the-top.
But, as a friend of mine commented, Ophelia is a fanfiction version of Hamlet, complete with plucky heroine, dastardly villains, and brooding love interest. There’s nothing wrong with romance, but the film wants too much to be taken seriously, unable to reconcile itself with its own extremity. Most problematic is its tendency to elevate Ophelia without making her more complex, as though she’s only worked on externally and has no inner life. By refuting her victimization by the world she cannot control, Ophelia actually abandons the depth of its lead’s psychology and tragedy, and removes itself from even an attempt to comment on patriarchy. Hamlet is just a bad boy that any teenage girl would love. Well, Ophelia always deserved better than Hamlet. She still does.
Ophelia comes to cinemas June 28 and VOD July 2.