A creative re-imagining of Denmark’s most famous royalty yarn, “Ophelia” does more than just provide new insight into “Hamlet,” it also contextualizes the 400+ year-old play via characters that seem more alive now than ever before. An origin story of sorts, “Ophelia” delves into the eponymous character’s childhood and adolescence at court, using elements from Shakespeare’s play along with a creative reevaluation of the young woman as an active agent of change within the narrative. The result is an engaging, multi-faceted exploration of familiar characters seen from a different angle, which is a fun story in its own right, and an exciting re-exploration of maybe the most famous story in western literature.
“Ophelia” opens with its title character running through the cavernous passageways of Elsinore Castle, where the pre-teen is treated as just another low-born troublemaker. A chance encounter with Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) thrusts Ophelia into a life at court, however, where she’s cleaned up and put in the ladies-in-waiting stable with the high-born women. The film then jumps a few years forward, with a grown Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) struggling to find her place amongst her wealthier peers.
Educated, confident, yet possessed of enough common sense to keep her head down when it matters, Ophelia continues to grow closer to the queen: much to the consternation of the other high-born ladies. As the film moves into its second act, Ophelia grows into herself via a burgeoning romance with Prince Hamlet (George MacKay) and her precarious bond with Gertrude. The audience gains a more nuanced understanding of Ophelia through all of this, adding more depth to a character that has always lived in the background of this universe.
Although a deep or even passing knowledge of the original play adds a whole other layer to “Ophelia,” this isn’t a necessary component for enjoyment. The film’s greatest achievement is providing believable history and agency for a character that is largely at the mercy of events in the original play’s text. In this telling of the story, it is Ophelia, not Hamlet, who is in the driver’s seat when it comes to the former’s fate, and the way the film establishes that, through the unfolding of her history, sells this. Ophelia isn’t some hapless girl getting cast about on the rocks of the story like a ship caught in the breakers, but rather an intelligent, savvy young woman, who is keenly aware of her social station and is reacting accordingly.
Still, narrative Easter Eggs abound in “Ophelia” and are a treat to any fans of the Bard. When the king grumbles in the background about Norway being on the march, or when Ophelia spies on the queen from behind a tapestry, diehard fans of the play will likely feel a bit tickled. There’s also a great deal of story back-fill going on here, with more info on the queen and Claudius’ (Clive Owen) relationship, Ophelia’s bond with brother Laertes (Tom Felton), along with a closer look at what kind of person Hamlet was prior to the regicide.
Director Claire McCarthy also manages to find a visual balance with “Ophelia” by incorporating brighter colors and clean visual landmarks that fall somewhere between the Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh versions. The costumes are spectacular, and probably a bit tidier than period-appropriate garb, yet the visual aesthetics establish this as the intention early on, when the opening shot pulls straight from John Everett Millais’ famous painting of Ophelia. It’s a wink at the audience: a knowing acknowledgment that the viewer is coming into this with an idea of what’s to come, hence the visual shortcut.
These fantastic choices behind the camera compliment similar ones in front of it, starting with Ridley in the title role. The script gives her character layers and texture to explore her outsider status not just as a woman, but as a commoner amongst royalty. The way this informs her character, as well as her interactions with the increasingly frantic Gertrude (Watts is similarly magnificent) and the emotionally wrecked Hamlet, breathes new life into the old story. It’s all enough to make one forget about the astonishingly bad wig they stick on Owen, who looks like a cross between Prince Valiant and a blonde Tommy Wiseau.
Briskly paced, well-acted, and thoughtfully adapted from Lisa Klein’s YA book, “Ophelia” makes a successful run at literary reimagining in its most ambitious form. There are few stories as cherished as ‘Hamlet,’ yet McCarthy’s film manages to balance an audacious reinterpretation inside a loving ode to the original. And while Ophelia’s story is ultimately a sad one, the new movie about her gives the character a chance to tell it on her own terms. [B+]