Shakespeare is not holy writ. If people want to set his plays to different time periods or use the plot as the inspiration for another story (like Throne of Blood or 10 Things I Hate About You), that’s fine. Even something like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead uses Hamlet as a springboard to reach ideas that go beyond Shakespeare’s original play. But it takes some balls to look at Hamlet, and I think, “I can fix this.” And yet that’s exactly what Claire McCarthy’s adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel Ophelia. While following Hamlet from Ophelia’s perspective is an intriguing prospect, the story doesn’t follow her perspective as much as it just decides to wholesale change the story, introducing new characters, adding prologue, and ultimately making Ophelia into an entirely new character. The result is a movie that comes off like a poor imitation of Romeo & Juliet, and a lazy reading of one of Shakespeare’s best plays. At least it’s pretty to look at.
Starting with ham-fisted narration from Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) saying that people “think they know my story,” the movie then cuts back to Ophelia as a rambunctious child whose headstrong ways eventually get her into the good graces of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). We then cut forward to see Ophelia as a lady-in-waiting, but one who doesn’t have the respect of her peers because her family has no station. However, she manages to beguile Hamlet (George MacKay) and work as a dutiful servant to Gertrude, who sends Ophelia out into the woods to meet with the witch Mechtild (also Watts), the Queen’s twin sister who lives in exile. Then the Hamlet story happens, but Ophelia believes there’s a way to save both her and Hamlet from the machinations of the evil King Claudius (Clive Owen).
On the surface, a feminist approach towards Hamlet is intriguing, and the movie certainly puts Ophelia, Gertrude, and Mechtild at the center of the story. Unfortunately, the narrative isn’t sharp or clever enough to work within the bounds of the original story or challenge the framework by breaking the fourth wall or serving as a meta-commentary. It’s not a new interpretation of Hamlet, but rather a rewrite where the author thought, “I don’t like the way Ophelia is treated. Let me add a bunch of stuff so that she has a better fate.” This kind of approach automatically undermines the entire movie, because Ophelia then becomes a movie that respects Hamlet enough to use it as source material, but not enough to engage with why the story had endured for a few centuries.
Perhaps the movie’s approach could be forgiven if it led anywhere interesting, but Ophelia adds a bunch of story with almost no insight. Despite showing Ophelia as a tomboy, being an outcast among her fellow ladies in waiting, Gertrude having a drug addiction, and Claudius having an affair with a new supporting character, none of the extra material makes for a richer understanding of Ophelia or her new story. At best, the conclusion seems to be, “If Ophelia were different, her story in Hamlet would be different,” which, obviously. If I wrote “Jerry, The Idiot Danish Apothecary Whose Poisons Don’t Work,” I could come up with a version of Hamlet where nobody dies. But what’s the point of that story and why is it better than the story we already have?
The nicest thing I can say about Ophelia is that it looks nice when it doesn’t look cheap. There are some laughably fake backdrops, Owen’s wig is terrible, and for a movie that takes place in a castle, there only appears to be the Queen’s Quarters, the main hall, a parapet, and a hallway. And yet McCarthy stages some gorgeous shots and gets some outstanding costumes and production design. It’s just a shame that this kind of technical quality isn’t part of a better movie.
Ophelia is a nice concept that isn’t willing to do the hard work of engaging with Hamlet or breaking free from the constraints of a period piece. It simply wants to be “Hamlet but with Nicer Treatment of Ophelia,” which, sure, would be nice, but it’s insulting not just to Shakespeare, but to storytellers in general. If I wrote a work of fiction, and someone came along, took the majority of it and then changed some things to suit their own preferences, it would be a smack in the face. Ophelia tells us, “You think you know my story.” You leave Ophelia saying, “Don’t leech off someone else’s fiction. Tell your own damn story.”