‘Ophelia’ features an excellent cast with good chemistry
The latest screen version of “Hamlet” opens with Ophelia declaring, “I have always been a willful girl, and followed my heart, and spoke my mind.”
This is so far removed from Shakespeare’s timid waif that I feared “Ophelia” — now available for online streaming — was about to shove a girl-power agenda down our throats. And certainly the first hour is too shrill.
It’s more than a trifle absurd, for example, when Hamlet saves Ophelia from rape by a dozen well-armed men and she then insists, “I had no need of saving.”
But eventually, the story — considerably reworked by novelist Lisa Klein and script-writer Semi Chellas — takes on such a robust life of its own that their film becomes a fascinating entry in the myriad re-castings of Shakespeare’s classic.
Leavening their narrative with some new strands, Klein and Chellas provide a compelling backstory not only for Ophelia but also for Queen Gertrude; in so doing, they retain the key points of Shakespeare’s Ophelia plot — the mad scene, the graveyard, the protective brother — while giving them all a whole new meaning.
I was especially impressed by the mad scene — in which they contrive to make Ophelia, rather than Hamlet, the one who feigns lunacy to insult the king; so too the “nunnery” dialog, where Ophelia again drives the plot, being the one to tell Hamlet what really happened to his father.
Since I enjoy Shakespeare updates like “Men of Respect” and “10 Things I Hate About You,” I guess I’m not much of a purist — which may explain why I felt like cheering as Klein and Chellas unfurled a climax that somehow felt both faithful to Shakespeare and, at the same time, radically fresh (though the fight scene is too bloody).
The excellent cast includes Naomi Watts — in a double role as Gertrude plus a new character named Mechtild — and Clive Owen as Claudius. Initially this king-killer is too coy and slovenly; but when he finally takes the throne, Owen transforms the slimy snake into a fire-breathing dragon.
Thankfully, the cast is headlined by Daisy Ridley (best known as Rey in the final “Star Wars” trilogy). Her Ophelia is indeed headstrong — but also feminine; the final interaction with Hamlet shows that Ophelia’s more womanly ethics might’ve led to a very different resolution. And the concluding moments of the film provide much more light and hope than Shakespeare’s original tragedy.
George MacKay is terrific as Hamlet; he and Ridley have plenty of chemistry. Their initial meeting is smart and engaging; and their love-scene is sexy without being overly explicit. The two get secretly married in this re-telling.
So this very different version won’t thrill every “Hamlet” fan. Indeed, at times it is so fundamentally altered that it almost seems to be . . .
Or not to be.