“You think you know my story”, states our protagonist at the beginning of this reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Director Claire McCarthy attempts to grant the character more agency with a new and supposedly thrilling perspective. Unfortunately, after 107 minutes of this romantic drama, Ophelia’s story only feels skin-deep.
Daisy Ridley leads the cast as Ophelia, a commoner who becomes Queen Gertrude’s (Naomi Watts) trusted lady-in-waiting. While the other girls belittle her humble origins, she quickly gains the attention of Prince Hamlet (George MacKay). Whilst trying to repress her feelings for the prince, Ophelia stumbles across dark secrets regarding Gertrude and Hamlet’s sinister uncle, Claudius (Clive Owen).
Recounting the story through the eyes of Ophelia is a perfectly good idea. How she perceives other characters’ actions could gleam a whole new meaning from the play and is definitely the aim McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas strove for. Yet there is curiously little here to separate the film from the many other adaptations of Hamlet across stage and screen. There is nothing particularly special about the set design, score or direction. It is a rather flat production, lacking the crucial heart to make the story work. Without a strong emotional core, OPHELIA is reduced to yet another disappointing period piece despite its best intentions to tell us something important regarding the role of women in famous literature.
OPHELIA features an appealing cast but this is perhaps the biggest disappointment. Ridley fails to convince in the lead role, unable to elicit the wide range of emotions the part requires. George MacKay does his best as the troubled prince but the film doesn’t know what it wants to do with him (or its male characters in general). This Hamlet is immediately obsessed with Ophelia and appears too creepy and leering for the audience to buy into their romance. In other scenes, he claims to value knowledge over violence – the ‘lover not a fighter’ trope – which is contradictory to much of his behaviour throughout. Combined with the fact that he appears somewhat infrequently in the story, the viewer is never left with a clear idea of who he is. Perhaps the idea was to show two different sides of the character but neither is sufficiently explored. Ultimately, the film never gives Ophelia a good reason to fall for the prince.
The more established actors also suffer. The prospect of Naomi Watts in a dual role and Clive Owen as the antagonist is an intriguing one and, in theory, should be great casting. However, neither actor leaves much of an impression in underwritten parts. Even Tom Felton appears in a thankless role which borders on a mere cameo. Gertrude is given an interesting yet half-hearted backstory which Watts could have excelled in had it been given more attention. Perhaps a film more solely focused on Gertrude and her inner turmoil regarding the men in her life would have fared better as a character study.
Although, it must be said that none of the actors are truly to blame. The writing is OPHELIA’s real downfall, with a script filled with expositional dialogue and scenes which end before they have the chance to properly go anywhere. There is little sense of any true relationship between the characters, making it difficult for the actors to fully inhabit their roles. Characters don’t spend enough time with each other to establish a connection and therefore the emotional scenes fail to resonate. The whole affair is rather superficial, preventing the film from its main goal of digging deeper into Ophelia’s psyche. Her mistreatment and ‘madness’ don’t reveal anything new about the character, and the ‘reimagined’ material leaves her with a conclusion which somehow feels unearned.
It should be noted the film is not entirely without merit. There are some nice shots, such as a gargoyle looming over the night-time castle ramparts and a field at dusk, and there is a warm colour palette with a couple of fun party scenes. There are moments which show the film OPHELIA could have been, but the story plays as lazy rather than tragic. The premise is intriguing and its ambitions timely but the execution is a misfire.