Film Review: Ophelia fails to make the most out of its interesting revisionist premise

Filmgoers have always mused upon the fact that there are formulas in cinema that have been explored over and over. Cliches and tropes, if you will. In the case of this review, the formula that has been explored numerous times is the adaptations of the works of renowned English writer/playwright William Shakespeare. What makes Shakespeare’s work stand out to this day is how relatable and timeless it all is, regardless of the period settings; all of his works have been adapted numerous times to fantastic acclaim; whether they are straightforward or auteurist [sic].

Over time, adaptations of his work have correlated with the political climate of many eras and in the current era, filmmakers have many trends at their disposal to consider and utilize. Enter case in point, Australian director Claire McCarthy‘s Ophelia; a feminist and revisionist take of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, through the eyes of the titular character, played by the talented Daisy Ridley.

With an established cast including Naomi Watts, Clive Owen and George MacKay; acclaimed screenwriter Semi Chellas doing script duties (whose upcoming film, American Woman, will show at TIFF 2019) and top-notch source material from both Shakespeare and Lisa Klein, author of Ophelia (the book of the same name) at the McCarthy’s disposal, will the film succeed?

Ridley plays Ophelia, a spirited and rebellious, yet independent child, who is taken into the castle of Elsinore by Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) as one of her ladies-in-waiting; after catching her attention by fearlessly speaking up to her. She also inadvertently catches the attention of the young prince Hamlet (George MacKay) and the two fall in love.

While their kindled romance grows in secret, their love is on the rocks when it has come to Hamlet‘s attention that his father has been killed; sparking a flame as the kingdom is on the brink of war amidst its own political intrigue and betrayal. While Hamlet’s mind is focused on an insatiable quest for vengeance for his father, Ophelia is thrown into a tumultuous predicament that will require her to be dexterous through all the political hullabaloo; all while struggling to choose between her true love and her own life.

Does Ophelia stand out on its own terms as a compelling re-imagining of the tale of Hamlet? While it may provide interesting viewpoints on its female characters and solid filmmaking behind the camera, the stolid drama and the convoluted storytelling due to the problematic script and the haphazard and underdeveloped look in gender politics make it a minor disappointment.

As for the positives, both Ridley and Watts do their darnedest with their roles; lending much-needed dignity and conviction. Ridley easily conveys the intelligence and integrity and the emotional rush of Ophelia with nuance; while Watts manages to convey the inner tragedy and turmoil of Gertrude quite well.

On the technical front, cinematographer Denson Baker brings a rustic, yet vivid look to the proceedings — capturing the sets and costumes (the latter being brilliantly realized by Massimo Cantini) with utterly romanticized beauty — while Steven Price‘s stirring score manages to pump up the melodrama of the source material to a near-mythological feel, which adds some much-needed punch to the conflicts in the story.

As for the negatives, the malnourished script by Chellas hurts matters severely. The characterization of Ophelia is both blatant yet superficial, as it makes it abundantly clear in an opening voice-over (of Ophelia seemingly at her life’s end) that she always followed her heart and spoke her mind. While it may be a good way to start the story given the understated performance from Ridley, the storytelling becomes more and more in-your-face as the fish-out-of-water status of Ophelia is so didactic to the point of being unintentionally funny, complete with lots and lots of bullying from her female peers.

It doesn’t stop there; as the characterization of Gertrude also suffers the same fate. Essentially the one thing of note for her character is her severe neglect and it hurts to see Watts’ efforts wasted on one-note character(s). The portrayal of neglect is laughably superficial, as it is shown in such a haphazard way i.e. the king doing his duties and her son, Hamlet, reminds her of her lost youth and love and yet it apparently melts away when she sees Claudius in a brief swordfight.

The story also takes out major events of the source material, due to the character of Ophelia never witnessing said events. While that may be understandable, it does take out the emotional punch the drama needs, making it shockingly inert. When Hamlet becomes more unruly and makes a shockingly fatal mistake (happening off-screen), it never seems to faze Ophelia in the slightest, which makes absolutely no sense.

What also doesn’t make sense is Sellas’ need to cram in inspiration of other sources into the film, that result in little to no payoff. For example, a strange and complicated subplot (which doesn’t exist in the play) involving plot points taken from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth (witchcraft) and Twelfth Night (cross-dressing) is so out of place and superfluous, that it wastes its potential in its examination of female gaslighting and hysteria for foreshadowing a third-act twist, which is made mind-numbingly obvious.

Speaking of obvious, the Shakesperean [sic] dialogue is also dumbed down to the point of sounding like a mid-afternoon soap opera, with such great gems like “I told you to go to that nunnery” (which kills the notable scene stone dead) and romantic dialogue exchanges that are so terrible, that the romance never comes with a pulse. One particularly laughable exchange goes like this:

“You stop my heart.” Hamlet tells Ophelia in their first meeting.

“If your heart stopped, you would die.” she observes with utmost accuracy.

“I seem to be quite alive.” he astutely notes in turn.

“Ugh.” The audience sighs.

While Hamlet clearly states that he is quite alive, unfortunately that expression does not apply to the male performances, which are lifeless and unconvincing. Clive Owen is bored out of his mind and is clearly playing the role of Claudius in his sleep — even if he wasn’t, the wig he is saddled with kills any chance of anticipated menace — George MacKay conveys none of the inner rage or brimming emotion required for the role of Hamlet, resulting in a portrayal that is a prototypical bad boy and nothing more; and Tom Felton, Devon Terrell and Dominic Mafham are given very little to do with their parts.

And little is what the audience gets out of Ophelia, a disappointing drama that could have been a powerful and invigoratingly feminist look into the story of Hamlet. And yet, it was not to be.


Ophelia will be showing in selected cinemas 1st August.

Harris Dang

Rotten Tomatoes-approved Film Critic. Also known as that handsome Asian guy you see in the cinema with a mask on.

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