If there is an afterlife, I suppose that William Shakespeare must have made his peace with adaptations of his plays and poems a long time ago. Every storyteller, filmmaker, or playwright seems to take a turn reinterpreting his work: from Tom Stobbard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, to Disney’s The Lion King, to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’s West Side Story. This rich tradition of adaptation and reinterpretation of great Shakespearean works now continues with Ophelia, a wonderfully directed but sadly underwhelming new film starring Daisy Ridley as the famed Hamlet love interest. The time, the script is a little closer to the source material: it’s (mostly) a straight adaptation but from Ophelia’s perspective.
The film opens with a hauntingly beautiful shot of Ophelia drowned in a lake – an image anyone even slightly knowledgeable about the character would be intimately familiar with – before we hear Daisy Ridley’s voice warn us that we may feel that we know her story, but we actually don’t. And so, she continues on to explain and show her life in the castle, how she ended up becoming a member of the Queen’s court, and, eventually, her role in the tragedy of Hamlet. If this frame narrative sounds a little contrived, that’s because it is – but at least it’s not particularly distracting. The movie forces the narration to the side and tells its own story. For a little while, it’s even quite good at that.
Any audience member could be forgiven for being completely taken in by the film’s first act: after all, Daisy Ridley is giving a wonderful performance, the costume design is immaculate, and Ophelia’s relationship with Hamlet is engaging, if in a YA novel kind of way. Even at its best, Ophelia and Hamlet aren’t the most emotionally compelling couple, they don’t reach the thematic heights that I suspect the film was shooting for. It’s a little standard – he chases her, she resists, but really she likes the attention, and eventually, she gives in. It may be a tad familiar for seasoned romance viewers.
But, I can’t help but admit that it gets the job done. I like Ophelia in this – while not a particularly complex person, she at least takes a very active role in her own story. She’s rambunctious, curious, and unafraid to stand up to authority. True, she doesn’t live up to a Shakespearean standard, but who would?
Ophelia is aided by a strong performance by Daisy Ridley, who deftly balances between innocence and strength. I can honestly say that the role would be very different had Ridley not played it – I can’t think of a higher compliment. She’s instrumental in making this character work, and she drives forward through the first act of the movie. I’d even be willing to say I like almost everything about the movie before Hamlet returns for the second time, to discover his father, the king, is dead and that his mother has remarried. Almost.
Sadly for director Claire McCarthy, gorgeous shots of the natural beauty of Denmark, exceptional acting, and solid costume design cannot sustain a film forever. Eventually, one has to deliver on the thematic depth that was promised. Whether Ophelia succeeds rests almost entirely on whether the film is thematically engaging – this movie is intended primarily as a feminist retelling of Hamlet, and if it fails in effectively-being that then it fails as a movie overall. Even in the first act, when the movie is at its best, Ophelia’s feminist retelling is clumsy and contrived. At the film’s ending, when it’s at its worst, it’s a complete mess. That element is a failure, and thus the movie is a failure.
For the record, there’s nothing wrong with examining Shakespeare through a feminist lens. Academics have been doing so for a very long time – throw a rock in an English department and you’ll hit someone who has written an analysis of Lady Macbeth. Certainly, Ophelia and Lady Gertrude are worthy of the same treatment. But, and this is the point where I come clean, Ophelia isn’t really a reinterpretation of Hamlet – it doesn’t have anything to say about how the play itself handles its female characters. Rather, it’s a retelling of Hamlet, it uses the story, with some tweaks, in order to make its own observations about feminism and the treatment of women.
Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but Ophelia finds itself in an uncomfortable middle ground in adapting the work. It could have elected to stick extremely close to the original story, simply commenting on Hamlet or the treatment of women through that confined lens. Or it could have done something radically different, completely diverged from the Shakespearean play, and tell its own, unique message. What they did, however, was tell the same story with a number of contrived, shoehorned in places where Ophelia could play a role – a decision that translates like the exact wrong choice. It’s not close enough to the material to really make use of it – it doesn’t borrow the play’s poetic dialogue or comment on how it constructs its female characters – and yet it also feels constrained by it. The movie is not bold enough to criticize Shakespeare, yet it’s also not bold enough to tell a story that is incompatible with Shakespeare.
The tragedy of Ophelia is that the more it pretends to be an intellectually important work, the more it feels like an adaptation of a YA novel (which, for the record, it is). Ophelia’s involvement in this story borders on the absurd – she learns the Queen has a secret sister in the woods who sells medicine, conspires with Hamlet as they learn about the King’s plot, and engages in other activities that I don’t dare spoil for any readers still interested in watching (though let me warn you this film is as predictable as it is contrived). Ridley is still doing a good job, but what does she have to work with? A mediocre story that’s bogged down in plot conveniences and increasingly lazy feminist philosophy. When the story isn’t getting wildly off-track, it’s presenting bland “girl power” faux-feminism about reading and not burning witches that seems straight out of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
None of that makes Ophelia bad – there’s still a lot to like here. But as the movie goes on, it gets worse, and the list of things I like gets shorter and shorter. It’s a shame: this film, and especially this cast, could work. It even comes somewhat close to doing so, but ultimately the film’s formula for success in the first third is not sustainable. Quickly, Ophelia runs out of good ideas and just runs with the bad ones.