Ophelia (2018)

*. “You may think you know my story. Many have told it. It has long passed into history, into myth. I have seen more of heaven and hell than most people dream of. But I was always a wilful girl, and always followed my heart and spoke my mind. And it is high time I should tell you my story, myself.”
*. Those are the opening lines of Ophelia and they’re a declaration of independence, delivered by voiceover as we see Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) floating in the river in full Millais mode. The “myth” the character Ophelia refers to is a prominent one for feminists, making her an icon of victimhood, collateral damage in a revenge tragedy and game of power politics. In telling her story herself she will not just gain agency but become the hero.
*. So far, so obvious. And coming right at the start I feared Ophelia was going to turn into a lot of feminist tub-thumping. But it settles down, and while it sticks to its revisionist agenda it’s not as crude as this opening would suggest.
*. I thought the premise was wonderful. It’s sort of like Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in giving us a different perspective on the old warhorse, while also operating a bit as a prequel in laying out the back story for the events of the play. For example, along with Ophelia herself, I’ve always found Gertrude to be a mysterious figure. What does she really know about what’s going on? Or what does she suspect? Here there’s plenty, as Naomi Watts plays a woefully underserviced wife who starts fooling around with her brother-in-law Claudius (Clive Owen) before Hamlet Sr. is offed with poison.
*. There’s a lot of rejigging of the language and the plot. The speech is modernized, even when borrowing scenes directly from Shakespeare. So Polonius advises Laertes “Don’t borrow any money, or lend it. And above all, be true to yourself.” Again, that’s fair play. The plot, however, really gets an overhaul, helped along in particular with a solid infusion of Romeo and Juliet. Hamlet (George MacKay) and Ophelia are actually married by a kindly old priest, and there’s a poison that “mimics death but mocks it.” There needs no ghost from the grave to tell them about Claudius’ plot because Ophelia turns Nancy Drew and figures it out for herself. Both of them only feign madness. There’s no Ghost, but a witchy woman who gathers herbs in the forest.
*. It’s fun to follow along and see what all they’ve changed. Like Ophelia cutting her hair at the end and pretending to be a boy to get back to Elsinore for the big duel. A boy named . . . Osric. Ho-ho! For English majors this kind of thing is a treat. I won’t give away the ending, but I got a big laugh out of it too. And I mean that not in a mocking way. It’s incredibly silly, but if you’ve made it that far it’s not a disappointment.
*. In places it goes too far. I didn’t think they needed the witch in the forest in the first place, but to have her be related to Gertrude and Claudius was a bit much.
*. The drawback here is that the source was a YA novel and that’s the same demographic the producers seem to have targeted. There’s a lot of pretty scenery (including mountain ranges in Demark!) and romantic posing, but this just isn’t a grown-up movie. Critics were quick to brand it as Shakespeare meets Twilight, and that’s not unfair. It’s also directed, by Claire McCarthy, without a lot of snap and energy. Ridley is good, and the rest of the movie is earnest and cute in a teenage sort of way. It’s not my thing, but I’m sure no one involved would be upset by that.

11 thoughts on “Ophelia (2018)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I think I didn’t just because I realize I’m not the target audience. I guess they did well enough with it, but it wasn’t my thing. I’ll try to get the knives out for the next one . . .


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