William Shakespeare’s work is such that it invokes consideration even now, four centuries after the Bard’s death in 1616. His work exists in a pantheon unto itself, towering above the whole of literature produced since and sitting alongside the foundational epics of humanity in a place of myth and reverence.
All good myths, of course, evoke the need for reproductions and retellings, and Shakespeare’s works have seen no shortage of reworkings over the centuries. The stories are such that they deserve our consideration and almost beg to be viewed in new lights and from new angles. Hamlet has seen its fair share of reworkings—so many that, until now, it seemed there was little territory left to mine from the story.
How wrong I was to believe that!
Director Claire McCarthy has brought a mesmerizing new angle to the story of Hamlet in her latest film, Ophelia. Based on the novel from writer Lisa Klein, Ophelia retells the familiar tale from the perspective of Hamlet’s ill-fortuned lover and brings a powerful perspective to the story we already know. It is everything you could hope from a reimagining.
Daisy Ridley stars as Ophelia, who is recast as a woman trying to keep her wits about her in a time of great upheaval. Shakespeare’s play as her cast out as a woman driven mad by Hamlet’s revenge schemes; here, we see her using cunning and manipulation in the same way Hamlet does in his story. The driving force of the original is Hamlet’s play at madness in effort to suss out the truth of his father’s death. We see that paralleled here in Ophelia’s efforts to keep Hamlet, and her family, safe.
Ophelia is backed by a dream cast including Naomi Watts as Gertrude, Clive Owen as Claudius, and Tom Felton as Laertes, any of whom would be well cast in a traditional retelling. Additionally, Watts plays double duty, being cast also as a new character, Mechtild, a woman cast out under accusations of witchcraft.
Narratively, Ophelia blends the story of Hamlet well with its original work, letting familiar scenes play out in a bold new manner that will be shocking even to those already well-versed in the tale. Ophelia’s father, Polonius (Dominic Mafham), for instance, gives us more reason for his refusal to allow Ophelia to succumb to Hamlet’s (George McKay) romantic pursuits. His death is given a heartbreaking new perspective that further explains the descents of both Ophelia and Hamlet.
McKay, for his part, revels in portraying Hamlet as the madman the character pretends to be, which makes sense considering the perspective we’re given. This allows for a deeper and more fulfilling exploration of Ophelia’s fear of Hamlet’s state of mind. Without the context we’re given in Hamlet that the Danish prince is feigning his insanity, the character becomes a more tragically frightening figure.
Ridley shines in the title role, bringing an entirely new light on the character of Ophelia. Her own feigned madness works as a parallel to Hamlet’s and allows us to see the story in a way far more terrifying than we’ve gotten previously. It’s a fascinating reconsideration not just of the story but of the character herself, and Ridley is magnificent and suggesting the original while making the role something entirely different than it’s ever been before.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Denson Baker, McCarthy’s staging is given a kind of poetic beauty that underscores not just the tragedy of the story, but the tragedy of Ophelia as a character. It’s often breathtakingly cinematic, giving us a vividness and beauty that even Shakespeare would have appreciated.
While the film takes a bit to find its footing, spending much of the first act easing us into the new perspective it supposes, once it does it’s an enrapturing take on the familiar that’s every bit as evocative as the source. For fans of Shakespeare, Ophelia is an absolute delight of a film that begs for consideration.
Ophelia is now playing in select theaters and also available for rental on Amazon Prime.
This is an awful review by a myopic reviewer who wouldn’t know how to treat Shakespeare if he walked in and said ‘how are you, I’m the greatest playwright ever’.
What a joke. Get a new reviewer, because this guy is a clown. …and not a funny one.