Film Review: “Ophelia” Mostly Rescues Herself

Film poster: “Ophelia”

Ophelia (Claire McCarthy, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

The play’s the thing … wherein we’ll catch the king by the collar, run a sword through his chest, wreak havoc and defy (some) expectations. Such is Ophelia, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the perspective of she who drowns herself, madness having overtaken her soul. Or so we thought. In director Claire McCarthy’s version, there is much ado … about something, young Ophelia now with a few unanticipated tricks up her sleeve. As she intones in opening voiceover, “You may think you know my story …,” but do we? With revisionist inclinations not unlike those of the 2014 Maleficent, which reinvented the Sleeping Beautytale with exciting new details, McCarthy (The Waiting City) and screenwriter Semi Chellas, adapting author Lisa Klein’s eponymous 2006 novel, bring us a title character with greater agency and purpose than the sorry victim of Shakespeare’s drama.

There are some nice elements to recommend here, including Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) as Ophelia. Tomboyish as a girl, she is nevertheless drafted into the queen’s employ as handmaiden, scorned by the other ladies for being low-born (a change from the source text). Growing up, she attracts the attention of Prince Hamlet (George MacKay, Captain Fantastic), precisely because she is unlike the others, but he is destined for greater things (or so she’s told). Just as their nascent romance is taking off, however, the events that launch the original play happen, with Hamlet’s father, the king, murdered by his own brother, Claudius, who has been getting all hot and heavy with Queen Gertrude and soon marries her. Clive Owen (The Confirmation), an actor I otherwise admire, overplays his part as Claudius, telegraphing his every malevolent move, but Naomi Watts (Demolition) does a fine job in not one, but two, roles, as both Gertrude and a new character, invented for this retelling. She’s torn, knowing, deep down, that Claudius is evil, but he’s so hot and she’s so bothered.

Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts in OPHELIA ©IFC Films

I very much enjoyed the changes to the narrative, including Watts’ twin part. As Claudius schemes, so, too, do Ophelia and Hamlet, setting the new king up for a nasty demise. Unfortunately, he is not the only one to die (not a change from the source text). But Ophelia demonstrates resilience and intelligence lacking in her 17th-century incarnation. Ridley and MacKay are sweet together, their chemistry carrying the viewer through the script’s saccharine moments. For that, sadly, is what detracts from the better aspects of the movie: like Owen’s performance, there is too much exposition, both in dialogue and, most egregiously, the soundtrack. The music often overwhelms, telling us how to feel, when and why. And there is the final mayhem at the end, confusing in its pile-on of increasing carnage. But the feminist twist and the power of Ridley’s screen presence nevertheless make of Ophelia a film worth watching, shortcomings and all.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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