Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film on Friday, June 28.
Shakespeare has always been ripe for reinvention, and Claire McCarthy’s “Ophelia,” a reworking of “Hamlet” from the perspective of his seemingly doomed lover, is the kind of new spin on one of the ol’ Bard’s most beloved stories that should only reestablish the force of Shakespeare’s original words. And yet McCarthy’s film, based on Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel of the same name, takes its best ideas (and its best performers) and traps them in a cheap narrative that will likely rank among the worst of many Shakespearean adaptations. It’s such a good idea on paper, rendered totally inert on the screen.
At least there’s Daisy Ridley as the eponymous Ophelia, introduced as a “willful girl.” Literally locked out of the very library she’s so desperate to enter (“Ophelia” is rarely subtle), Ridley brings a grace that makes it clear why both Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and young Hamlet (George MacKay) would gravitate toward her. In a palace filled with whispers and intrigue — plus Clive Owen stomping about as a Claudius who offer both allure and repugnance — Ophelia offers an innocence in short supply. Gertrude soon takes her under her wing as an official lady-in-waiting, annoying her other attendants, who can’t accept that their charge likes a poor, smart girl better than them.
Their initial bond is a strange one — is Gertrude taking pity? or does she seem something strangely familiar in her circumstances? — but it serves to build out the first act in compelling style. Watts and Ridley possess an absorbing chemistry: Ophelia is honest and true, and Gertrude finds herself delighted by the possibility of teaching such a charming young lady the ways of the world (from bawdy books to her latent witchy potion addiction).
The film’s production design is oddly anachronistic. There’s nothing to suggest that the action takes place in medieval Denmark, instead embracing lush colors and fabrics that look sort of royal and a soundtrack more beholden to the talents of Sarah McLachlan.
Ophelia’s happy place with the queen halts when the king is murdered. This is also where Semi Chellas’ choppy script abandons the notion that this is Opehlia’s story and turns its attention to plundering Shakespeare’s greatest hits instead. There’s the witch in the forest (“Macbeth”), a weak cross-dressing contrivance (“Twelfth Night”), and most damning of all, an exceedingly weird rip-off of the poison plot in “Romeo and Juliet.”
If you’re going to steal from Shakespeare, why do it while reimagining one of his greatest works? If “Hamlet” doesn’t offer you enough meat, something is awry.
Most damning, however, is that the film no longer feels as if it belongs to Ophelia, but instead uses her for a different take on a well-known tale. In an early voiceover, Ridley promises to deliver a story that finally sheds light on who Ophelia was, a dedication that McCarthy’s own film forgets. While the first half of the film relied on the young lady-in-waiting making her way in a wholly strange environment, showing events through both her eyes and her emotions, the final act of the film is a mushy, muddled revisit that nearly forgets its reason for being: What if this was Ophelia’s story? It’s not.
“Ophelia” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.