‘Ophelia’ drowns in Shakespeare references

by Kate Walz on July 1, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Down]

I have a deep affection for well-known stories told from the perspective of the minor characters. I think it’s fun to examine motivations and rearrange context.

Sometimes it’s done very well (John Gardner’s Grendel) and sometimes it’s clearly a franchised money-snatching greed-fest (Disney’s villain everything).

Ophelia (directed by Claire McCarthy) is an attempt at the former, but it’s never as compelling or clever as it’s trying to be. Based on a 2006 historical romance by Lisa Klein, the script pulls in plot points from Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and even Twelfth Night that make it feel like a franchised Shakespearean universe.

Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) plays Ophelia, the doomed lover of Hamlet. Ophelia is traditionally more image than substance – the drowned lady floating with the flowers. Ridley brings some backbone and sass to the character, which certainly adds interest.

The film begins before the play does – setting Ophelia up to be Queen Gertrude’s (Naomi Watts) odd duck lady in waiting, who is never really accepted by the other ladies in waiting (I’m bored just writing this) because she’s, you know, a tomboy, in that sometimes she goes swimming.

Hamlet (George MacKay of Captain Fantastic) is besotted (she’s so different, with the swimming!), but distracted and headed to school. And then the play kicks in, and Ophelia begins to settle into a TBS made for TV movie from 1997. The one song that is played to set drowning moodiness sounds like a Lillith Fair reject.

Clive Owen attempts a different twist on the cowardly Claudius by adding an element of anger and unpleasantness to the character. It would play better if his wig weren’t so distracting.

Honestly, all the wigs are absurdly terrible.

Watts pulls double duty as Gertrude and the witch in the woods (bubble, bubble…). Like the rest of the cast, she’s doing what she can with the script (by Semi Chellas) – which could have been super fun and campy, but takes itself much to seriously considering the stunts it’s pulling.

But here’s my biggest beef – this is some old-school feminism of the “for women to have power, men must be worthless” ilk and it’s so tired. The women are clever and powerful and cunning. The men are crazy or bullies, and at their best they follow orders from the women well.

I want to see the movie from Ophelia’s actual perspective – a shy girl who likes plants and is cracking under the pressure. That’s tragic and interesting and a real person. This is 90s Girl Power Shakespeare with bad wigs.

Kate Walz

Kate is a content-consuming pop-culture nerd. Her top 5 movies are: The Philadelphia Story, The Master, The Fountain, What About Bob and The Departed.

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