Synopsis: Director Claire McCarthy has breathed new life into the story of Hamlet with her latest film following Hamlet’s lover, the character of Ophelia. This adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel, which retold the original William Shakespeare classic Hamlet in young adult form, features stars Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts playing outstanding and commanding women as it goes behind the scenes of the original story. Ridley stars as Ophelia while Watts performs in the dual roles of Queen Gertrude and the witch Mechtild. (4/5 stars)
Review by FF2 Intern Anika Guttormson
Claire McCarthy’s adaptation of Ophelia, written by Semi Challas, does a fantastic job of giving us a look into the mind of one of the theatre’s most iconic characters. Fans of the Shakespearian classic need not worry as the original story of Hamlet remains intact, though told instead through the eyes of Hamlet’s lover. Taking inspiration from Lisa Klein’s young adult adaptation of Hamlet, the two kids secretly fall in love over the summer amidst fields of wheat, sharing kisses and dreaming of a better tomorrow until Hamlet (George MacKay) has to leave the castle to go back to college for many months without telling Ophelia. From here on their relationship, though strong, stands on a foundation of mistrust and deception, as Hamlet chooses to perpetually leave Ophelia out of his decision making. This becomes especially rampant after Hamlet’s father, the King, was killed by his brother Claudius (Clive Owen). Hamlet becomes blinded by a quest for vengeance for his father, to the point of putting himself in life-threatening danger, and Ophelia is forced to watch.
The best aspect of McCarthy’s adaptation is the newfound agency which she instills into Ophelia. Over the course of the film Ophelia loses her interest in being a passive observer in Hamlet’s life and by the final act has learned how to become an active participant in not only his life, but in her own life as well. This is aided by the guidance of Naomi Watts’ role of the witch Mechtild, who is the outcast sister of Queen Gertrude. The two meet when Ophelia is sent to collect an anti-aging tonic from the witch for the Queen’s consumption, and slowly form a friendship. Mechtild pushes Ophelia to take command of her own life, and her support becomes vital in Ophelia’s quest to find her voice. This relationship serves as a reminder for us in the audience that female friendships can be just as important as any romantic relationship we may find ourselves in.
Ophelia is carried by the incredible performances of its main women, Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts. Ridley’s rendition of Ophelia is spectacular and engrossing. It’s hard to look away when she commands the screen. Few actors are capable of creating a compelling presence when their characters are forced to act so reserved, but Ridley makes sure to captivate us through every longing glance or held back remark. As Ophelia grows in confidence, Ridley really begins to shine. Her most spectacular moment of acting comes during her breakdown. There are flashes of both kindness and cunning during this scene, and Ridley flows between each emotion seamlessly.
The hardest lesson learned from Ophelia is the truth that sometimes no amount of loving someone else can convince them to treat you in the way you deserve. Hamlet makes promise after promise to Ophelia, even marrying her in secret in order to prove his love and devotion to her. But when it comes to making decisions about his future, Hamlet often chooses to opt out of sharing his desires with Ophelia or include her in his many schemes. His recklessness jeopardizes their chance to be together when he makes a mistake and angers Ophelia’s brother Laertes (Tom Felton). When she begs him to slow down and think about what he really wants, and to recognize that vengeance and anger are not always the right options, Hamlet again chooses the path that hurts her the most.
Claire McCarthy defies expectations with Ophelia by not only succeeding in telling the popular story of Hamlet in a new and interesting way, but also by reworking an already beloved character in a way that makes her all the more incredible. This is not a film that you’d want to miss.
© Anika Guttormson (7/16/19) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: IMDB
Q: Does Ophelia pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
Some of the best moments of the film are when Ophelia holds conversations with the other women.
Commentary by Review Coach Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
There’s so many layers of images and mythic tropes in this film, not to mention in the play the film is based on, that watching Ophelia is like eating a really densely packed Chipotle burrito of narrative. Unlike at Chipotle, the juicy elements of this text do not turn the burrito into pulp and cause the spicy, crunchy, and savory ingredients to fall out into a sad pile onto your plate; the whole thing stays intact until the last bite. It’s also the kind of burrito that can be enjoyed both by people with deep knowledge of Mexican food and people who are just trying it for the first time (I mean Shakespeare to be the burrito at this point, I guess).
I wanted to talk about the dual role played by Naomi Watts, because it says so much in so few words about female power. We first meet Watts playing Queen Gertrude, the beautiful and sweet matriarch of the castle and Ophelia’s mother figure. Then Watts sends Ophelia into the woods to pick up her anti-aging potion, and we find that potion is supplied by a bedraggled, antisocial version of Watts hiding out in a cabin in the woods. This Watts is the witch, an outcast from society who is nonetheless needed by even those at the highest levels of power. While Gertrude the queen uses traditional femininity and sexuality to survive and get what she wants, Mechtild the witch uses science and magic that are considered unnatural for a woman to wield. The result is two models of what a powerful woman can be, and Ophelia caught between them.
Ophelia is first instructed by the queen in the ways of femininity, but then learns bits of magic and healing from the witch; in some ways she gets the worst of both worlds due to being used for her sexuality by the men in her life and lacking the skill to take advantage of the witch’s magic. The way she negotiates between these two poles of female power goes farther into her story than a reviewer can tell, but if you’re as hyped up about smart deployment of tropes you should definitely catch Ophelia to see Watts (and Ridley) in action.