BY TOM SPILLANE
Ophelia is like Shakespearean fan fiction with a budget to burn (albeit a small one).
Mostly this plays out as a delightfully indulgent reimagining of the original play.
Ophelia’s strongest achievement is how smoothly it blends real Shakespeare and whole new scenes and storyline, which are a kind of amalgam “Frankenstein” of his conventions.
The film is based on Lisa Klein’s 2006 book of the same name. She added whole new characters and fleshed out a few pre-existing ones – if only with some extra dialogue.
As you might expect, the narrative centres on Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) and gives her much more agency. A previously undisclosed background is created, with Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) choosing her to be a favoured handmaiden, despite Ophelia’s inferior class.
It’s a storyline that does endear you to both characters and it provides some characteristic Shakespearean levity before the conflict.
Daisy Ridley in this female-centred retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The relationship that develops between Ophelia and Hamlet (George MacKay) feels surprisingly natural – even charming.
Of course, at some point comes the grim reality of Shakespeare’s archetypal deaths. McCarthy does a muted, yet authentic interpretation that flies leagues above the Mel Gibson monstrosity of 1990.
Interwoven throughout is an intelligently devised B-plot involving Mechtild (also Naomi Watts), the hermit-like potion master Ophelia builds an unsteady relationship with.
To Daisy Ridley’s credit, her imagining of Ophelia hits all the necessary beats to connect with an audience and authenticate her struggle. She warms into the role, and by the time the third act arrives, her understated change in temperament is a real strength.
In comparison, other actresses in the role have taken Ophelia’s “insanity” to cringeworthy levels (again see Gibson’s Hamlet).
The cast overall is pretty good. There’s nothing that will threaten for the Oscars – “good” is about the best and worst anybody gets.
Clive Owen a surprising standout as Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, whose relationship with Queen Gertrude is part of a struggle take over the kingdom. He is consistently smarmy and grows ever more menacing in each scene – not sure if that’s really a compliment but it did improve the film so props for that.
As drawbacks go, Ophelia’s biggest is that it really doesn’t offer that arthouse glamour that pushes indies into cult status.
Ultimately, Shakespeare films have one central requirement – can they make you feel something? It’s a real challenge, and one where many period pieces crash and burn, through cinematic boredom.
But Ophelia scrapes over the line, and as pained as it may have been, I did ultimately enjoy it.