Review: OPHELIA Drowns In Its Own Incompetence

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Daisy Ridley as “Ophelia” in Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

Ophelia, directed by Claire McCarthy and adapted by Semi Chellas from the book by Lisa Klein, is a new re-imagining of the classic Shakespeare play Hamlet, this time from the perspective of Ophelia, the prince’s romantic interest. The result is well-intentioned but sure to be divisive, especially among Shakespeare purists.

The concept of the film is undeniably inderesting. Shakespeare’s works are notable for leaving a lot of room for interpretation simply because the language has changed so much in the hundreds of years since they were written. This movie takes that ambiguity and runs with it, creating an almost entirely different tale out of a side character. This isn’t the first time that has been done — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead used a similar device, but with a more comedic tone.

Ophelia, on the other hand, is completely serious, and as such, the liberties it took with the source material can not be forgiven under the pretext of satire. For the first two acts of the film, the separation is obvious, but understandable. It feels like reasonable speculation filling in the gaps of the story of a side character. The third act goes off into left field, though, destroying the entire meaning of the character in Shakespeare’s play.

Ophelia is a sympathetic character, as she has always been, but the liberties taken with her story do damage some of her characterization. Her motive becomes far less interesting in the movie than it is in the play Hamlet, and as a result, you don’t get behind her drastic action as easily. The supporting characters in the film, including Laertes and Getrude, are entirely underused and underdeveloped.

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Daisy Ridley as “Ophelia” and George MacKay as “Hamlet” in Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

The cast that was assembled for this movie is undeniably impressive, so it is a shame that they weren’t put to better use. Daisy Ridley plays the eponymous now-protagonist with sufficient emotional range and complexity to drive the film. However, this could (and should) have been Oscar-bait, and instead her performance is just solid.

Even more underused is the supporting cast, including big names such as Naomi Watts, Tom Felton, and Clive Owen. Granted, more blame should be placed on the script and its underuse of the characters, but the performances feel wooden and generic nonetheless. George MacKay gets his shot at playing the boy prince and does a solid job, but isn’t particularly memorable (at least he’s the right age, though).

That said, the movie does introduce some interesting themes in addition to addressing some that were explored in the Bard’s play. For example, the film’s exploration of the idea of social mobility is quite interesting. In Hamlet, Ophelia was just shown as a noblewoman. In Ophelia, we get to see her come into that position in a way that poses some intriguing ideas. Again, this is rooted in speculation, but it is one of the less annoying examples.

The movie also succeeds on a technical level. The movie looks absolutely phenomenal, being one of the most intricately-made period pieces to come out this year so far. The production design is brilliant, the costuming and set design doing a great job of taking you back into turn-of-the-seventeenth-century Denmark. The score is also quite beautiful, matching the elegance of what you see on screen.

No matter how pretty it may look, Ophelia is still largely a disappointment. Had the filmmakers fleshed out the third act a bit more and cut the ending, this could have been much better and more satisfying. As is, it is nearly a bastardization of the source material.

Ophelia opens in theaters on June 28 and hits VOD on July 2.

By Sean Boelman

Sean is a film student, aspiring filmmaker, and life-long cinephile. For as long as he can remember, he has always loved film, but he credits the film Pan's Labyrinth as having started his love of film as art. Sean enjoys watching many types of films, although some personal favorite genres include dramatic comedies, romantic comedies, heist films, and art horror.

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