To be or not to be. That is the question that has fascinated and bedeviled centuries of theatergoers and one eternally waffling prince. It is also the conundrum faced by any attempts to reinterpret or revisit William Shakespeare’s hallowed Hamlet text from a different vantage. Set in the medieval—if a stage director is so inclined—Danish castle of Elsinore, Hamlet’s great halls are populated by a dozen ambiguous and mostly tragic players. None more so than Ophelia. The doomed waif of generations of male writers’ admiring pity, she is almost always cast as the poor dear driven to madness and suicide due to the vacillating whims of a poor excuse for a hero. It’s a beautiful role derived from a different time and different set of values.
So as to make Ophelia the star of her own narrative is an irresistible fancy, even if it might be as ill-fated as its subject matter. How do you tell a story about drama’s most famed female suicide, who was condemned by her passivity, and not try to be something more enlightened, more palatable, and more heroic? How do you be Ophelia but not be what makes her so haunting (or “problematic” in the modern parlance)? It’s a nigh impossible riddle, and one that Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia has not the audacity or madness to answer.
As a very loose adaptation of the Bard’s play, and a book by Lisa Klein, Ophelia draws on centuries of fascination and recontextuatlization of its lead, opening on a stunning recreation of John Everett Millais’ painting of the lamented heroine—all auburn hair and angelic despair floating along a lily pond surrounded by flowers. This is the most visceral summation of the character, but as Daisy Ridley’s voiceover narration quickly explains, it is not the beginning (or in this version) the end of her story. Thus turning back to Ophelia’s childhood, the film reimagines Elsinore’s court as one seething with ambitions and lusts even before the king is dead.
It is there that a young and willful girl has eyes for a prince who grows from boy to handsome, if introverted, young student: Hamlet (George MacKay). Ophelia is also perceptive enough to see that the queen she serves as a lady in waiting, Gertrude (Naomi Watts), is having a less than chaste rapport with her brother-in-law Claudius (Clive Owen). Soon enough the king, Claudius’ brother, is dead and Claudius has replaced him on the throne and in his wife’s bed.
On the surface, it appears that most of the major story beats of Hamlet will repeat themselves and many eventually do, in a fashion. Yet this reimagining has as much in common with Romeo and Juliet as it does Danish princes, for Hamlet and Ophelia embark on a hidden love affair, complete with secret marriage pacts and the knowledge of pseudo-apothecaries and their wares down the street. Most of all though, it tries to put Ophelia’s defiance at the center of the story, turning a doomed love interest into a resourceful and peerless wit who not only outshines everyone else in the court but is predisposed to surpass them and their vices—thereby not feeling apiece with their world or their story that she becomes mere spectator of.
At its core, Ophelia attempts to be a radical reinvention of the narrative in much the same way that Tom Stoppard remade the bumbling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into their own tragic heroes in a play just about their deaths. However, less than a reworking of the material, this tinkering is ultimately a deterioration of it. Expecting prose of the caliber of Shakespeare would be unkind—and the dialogue by screenwriter Semi Chellas has a serviceable period piece rhythm to it—but to turn the height of dramatic despair into maudlin backstabbing reduces the material to a soap opera.
Rather than being an empowering deconstruction of Hamlet or even waifish archetype, Ophelia turns Elsinore into a canvas as small and generic as a lesser YA novel. There are high-minded aspirations about transforming Ophelia into a feminist heroine for 2019, but when contrasted with her Elizabethan foundations, the proverbial feet of clay dragging down the whole project become like concrete when she enters the water. The result is a movie too precious by half about Ophelia’s ingenuity—despite her still being confined to a narrative where she is constantly being used as a political tool by her king, father, and odious lover—while nevertheless reducing all other women in the narrative into thin mean girl archetypes jealous of her cunning or virtue.
Naomi Watts is especially wasted despite playing two characters, Gertrude and her Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow-inspired witchy sister in the woods (yes). Both characters are meant to represent two poles of femininity kept under the yoke of a patriarchy that either discards them or places them in a gilded cage, but the film is more concerned with building those cages than the creatures trapped inside. Watts is thus left to incongruent scenes where she watches Ophelia in envy or vacuous simplicity via one wildly misjudged riff on the ghosts in Macbeth.
Daisy Ridley is the only one given anything interesting to do, and as with her Star Wars films makes for a compelling presence, albeit an anachronism here. Be that as it may, it could be a powerful one if the film didn’t wish to so much elevate its heroine to the point where she not only beats her own tragedy but also defeats the appeal of the story, acting as much a Greek chorus as she does a protagonist by judging the remaining characters for us in a lightweight literary criticism of the play—and an uninteresting narrative on its its own. The ludcrious ending doesn’t do her or the court any favors.
MacKay’s whiney emo-boy Hamlet, Devon Terrell’s excellent Horatio, and Tom Felton’s nasty Laertes fill the margins but are too minimal to matter, which proves deadly when so much stock is put on Hamlet and Ophelia’s montage-length romance. But Owen gets to do some solid scenery-chewing as Claudius, a man ripe to have his time run up. Indeed, there is a small spark of genuine tension when he turns his wrathful gaze from his nephew to the paramour who makes no secret of her disdain.
Ophelia is a gorgeously designed and costumed drama, but its desire to fix ancient problems causes it to forget the play is the thing. Hamlet is, for better and worse, a product of its time, yet it is also timeless. A work that’s been celebrated for 400 years and will be for 400 more. Ophelia is so of its moment that it cannot grapple with the larger themes it’s critiquing. It’s dated five minutes before it begins.
Ophelia opens on June 28.