We’ve had “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and “Fortinbras Gets Drunk,” and now there’s “Ophelia,” an intelligent and gorgeous spin on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” from the point of view of the melancholy prince’s beloved.
“Hamlet” of course has its share of memorable characters — recall the bit player who claimed that the play was about a grave digger who meets a prince — but this provocative adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel gives an oft-maligned character purpose and agency. It is not betrayal and madness that bewitches this Ophelia but toxic masculinity.
Director Claire McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) and adapter Semi Chellas (“Mad Men”) give us an Elsinore Castle and its court that’s as handsomely mounted as any number of straightforward Shakespearean adaptations, but they cleverly tweak the proceedings to make us reexamine key moments from an entirely different angle. (Hamlet’s advice that the girl get herself to a nunnery gets a whole new context, and when Ophelia goes mad, she’s crazy like a fox.)
Our heroine grows up a commoner in the castle, running wild with older children after her beloved brother Laertes begins studying in the library, which is off-limits to girls. After she’s caught crashing the going-away banquet for college-bound young Hamlet, Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) takes the little tomboy under her wing and makes her a lady-in-waiting. Played by Daisy Ridley as a young adult, Ophelia is mocked by her peers for not being of noble birth, but her ability to read makes her a close confidant to the queen.
That gives her a front row seat to Gertrude’s fear of getting old, which makes the monarch susceptible to the seduction of her brother-in-law Claudius (Clive Owen). And while Hamlet (George MacKay, “Captain Fantastic”) starts out being merely flirty, he later pledges his true love to Ophelia despite their difference in station.
Brimming with palace intrigue and fascinating backstory (Claudius has skeletons in his closet from well before his fratricide), “Ophelia” gives the character new depth, even letting her experience some of the play’s big moments, whether it’s encountering a ghost on the battlements or eavesdropping on important conversations from behind a tapestry.
The film is rich with detail, from the ornate (yet lived-in) interiors to the gorgeous costumes by Massimo Cantini Parrini (“The Leisure Seeker”). McCarthy has a high-concept story to tell, but the images tell a story of their own, from the time-lapse sunset over the face of King Hamlet to the occasional flocks of birds that seem to announce danger.
Ridley is simply extraordinary, and she and MacKay give us a younger, lustier Ophelia and Hamlet than we usually get on the big screen. (At times, they call to mind the age-appropriate Romeo and Juliet from the 1968 Franco Zefferelli version.) She’s a girl angling to survive and to make her way through a complicated system that is designed to destroy the likes of her, and this Ophelia is nobody’s fool.
Watts, so often misused of late, finds the many layers of Gertrude (as well as another character) while Owen brings an appropriate brutishness to the throne room. And as the adult Laertes, Tom Felton gets a juicy grown-up role that takes him further away from his indelible portrayal of Draco Malfoy.
Ultimately, “Ophelia” is the story of a woman who offers all of herself and all of her love to a man who wants her — but who wants vengeance and violence more. It’s a tragedy that has played out countless times, but it feels fresh and powerful in this telling.