Ophelia is the latest feature from Australian director Claire McCarthy, and her first film in 7 years. Based on a novel by Lisa Klein, it tells the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as seen from the perspective of Hamlet’s betrothed Ophelia.
Aesthetically, the film is gorgeous to behold. Whether the camera is panning through a forest or capturing a sword fight in the castle’s main hall, Denson Baker’s cinematography shimmers with a deep luminosity that lends Ophelia most of its heft. It feels, perhaps unsurprisingly, Shakespearean, despite the fact that the characters are speaking in spruced-up but definitely modern English. In a world of postmodernist irony and self-consuming criticism, it felt very refreshing to watch a movie wholeheartedly embrace the mystical and romantic elements that make Shakespeare so captivating.
Despite the film’s feminist approach, Ophelia herself is fairly one-dimensional. But Daisy Ridley provides a compelling performance nonetheless, despite the limitations of the script.
“Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that, though the perspective has changed, this is still Hamlet.”
Elsewhere, Naomi Watts is delightful as both the fragile, anxiety-ridden Queen Gertrude and Mechtild, the vengeful witch. George MacKay’s Hamlet is a headstrong, fiery youth who treads the line between his love for Ophelia and his need to avenge his father’s murder with admirable realism (though we all know how that ends up.)
But it’s Clive Owen who stole the show for me, as Hamlet’s treacherous uncle Claudius. He’s all muscle and bulk, his bitterness and desire for power barely contained beneath a charade of warmth and joviality. He plays the character as a fearsome alpha male who has been forced to play second fiddle to his brother his whole life, and he’s equally terrifying and thrilling to watch.
Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact that, though the perspective is changed, this is still Hamlet. The film admirably attempts to flesh out Ophelia’s life ‘behind the scenes’, much in the way that Wicked did so successfully with the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. But in Ophelia, these scenes mostly serve to link up the more familiar parts of the story, with the drama all still stemming from Hamlet and his uncle’s antler-locking confrontation.
A final scene attempts to provide Ophelia with an ending that transcends the tragedy of the original story, but it ultimately feels tacked-on and artificial. The political sentiments of the scene overpower the narrative, and I would have preferred it if the film had left things open-ended.
All in all, Ophelia is definitely worth a watch, especially for fans of unapologetic costume dramas. It might not outlive the bard’s work, but if nothing else it’s an excellent reminder of how powerful Shakespeare’s stories are. Even in modern English, told from a different perspective, Hamlet’s downfall is still as tragic and heartbreaking as ever.
Ophelia is in cinemas from July 11th.