Ophelia (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A Shakespeare story told from her viewpoint

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“Ophelia” tries the feministic reinterpretation of one of the most famous works by William Shakespeare. Although its titular heroine may not be the most compelling character in the story from the beginning, the movie is often fascinating to observe the story and characters from her female viewpoint, and I sort of enjoyed that even though I could see some flaws and strains in its interesting attempt.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Klein, the movie begins with one of the most tragic moments told in “Hamlet”, and then it moves backward to its heroine’s early years. Even when she was very young, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) could not help but show her plucky spirit, and she soon found herself drawing the attention of Gertrude (Naomi Watts), the Queen of Denmark who took young Ophelia under her wing and then had her trained as one of her ladies-in-waiting in her court. As receiving the motherly affection from Gertrude, young Ophelia grew up to be a fair young lady, and it does not take much time for Gertrude’s son Hamlet (George MacKay) to notice Ophelia more than before, when he returns from his school several years later.

However, as many of you know, the circumstance surrounding Hamlet and Ophelia turns out to be not that ideal for the development of their mutual attraction. When she realizes that Hamlet is soon going back to his school, Ophelia becomes distant to him, and then the court is shaken by the sudden death of Gertrude’s husband, who is instantly succeeded by his younger brother Claudius (Clive Owen).

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Around the time when Hamlet hurriedly comes back to the court after receiving the news of his father’s death, Claudius already married Gertrude, who did not hesitate about that at all because she has been attracted to Claudius since being frustrated with the lack of attention from her husband – and how she has been getting older and looking less youthful. As watching his mother standing by his uncle who is technically his stepfather now, Hamlet has no choice but to pledge his loyalty in front of Claudius, but then he becomes suspicious about his father’s death, and then he comes to learn the truth via Ophelia, who happened to witness what has been going on among Claudius, Gertrude, and a certain character living inside a nearby forest

While presenting Ophelia as someone far more than a merely tragic supporting character, the adapted screenplay by Semi Chellas gradually builds up the tension surrounding Ophelia and the other main characters around her. There are some moments of tenderness as she and Hamlet come to feel more of their mutual feelings and then secretly move together onto the next step of their relationship, and there are also a number of serious scenes including the one where they pretend to be estranged from each other while well aware of being watched by Claudius and his men.

Of course, the situation becomes more perilous for Hamlet and Ophelia as the story is heading toward those expected tragic moments in Shakespeare’s play such as the unintentional murder of Ophelia’s father by Hamlet, who is subsequently sent to England along with two certain friends of his as ordered by Claudius. As blamed by Gertrude for what happened to her son, Ophelia soon finds herself cornered and menaced by Claudius, who comes to regard Ophelia as a possible threat to his current position and is ready to do anything for getting rid of her once and for all.

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Around its last act, the movie brings several necessary changes to Shakespeare’s original story, and that is where it stumbles a bit. Taking a more distant attitude along with its heroine, the movie comes to lose its narrative momentum, and its eventual finale feels rather perfunctory and bloodless although there is surely some blood to be spilt on the floor as demanded.

Anyway, the movie is mostly held together well by the engaging lead performance from Daisy Ridley, who has been quite prominent since her breakthrough turn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015). While it is a bit of shame that she and George MacKay do not generate much romantic heat on the screen, that is not much of a problem because she ably carries the film alone with her strong acting, and she is particularly wonderful when her character must feign to become totally insane in front of many people including Claudius. In case of several other notable performers in the film, Naomi Watts brings some human complexity to Gertrude while also having a little fun with her other role, and Clive Owen is effectively brooding and vicious as required by his villainous role.

On the whole, “Ophelia” is not entirely successful, but it is still recommendable for its curious reinterpretation of “Hamlet”, and the overall result is relatively better than “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” (1990), which also tried a similar thing as revolving around the two certain minor supporting characters in Shakespeare’s play but ended up being quite tedious and lifeless mainly due to its inherent theatrical aspects. Although I still wish the movie contained more passion and interest, director Claire McCarthy and her cast and crew did a fairly commendable job here at least, and you may appreciate it more especially if you are familiar with Shakespeare’s play.

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