Ophelia

If you find costume dramas and Shakespearean adaptations a little on the dull side, check out Ophelia, which puts a lively twist on one of the Bard's most tragic characters. (If those things are up your alley to begin with, you should check the film out, too.) Ophelia, of course, is famously driven mad in Hamlet, emotionally torn apart by trying to please the conflicting demands of the men in her life. Ophelia asks: What if she wasn't mad and was, in fact, smarter than everyone else?

The film opens several years before the events of Hamlet. Young Ophelia (Mia Quiney) displays a spunkiness that is considered unladylike by her father Polonius (Dominic Mafham). Nevertheless, she attracts the notice of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who promptly invites her to become one of her ladies-in-waiting.

Then we jump ahead to more familiar happenings. Ophelia (now played by Daisy Ridley) is just as forward-thinking as ever. That comes in handy as Claudius (Clive Owen) makes a grab for power and her relationship with Hamlet (George MacKay) is threatened by palace intrigue.

I don't want to spend too much time describing the plot. Much of Ophelia's pleasure comes in the way it adds to, expands upon, or subverts Shakespeare's famous work. The gist is that Ophelia is influencing a lot of things behind the scenes. Rather than a woman who goes mad, she is one who puts machinations in place to affect certain outcomes. Sometimes she's successful, other times unexpected complications occur that cause her to readjust her strategies. Seeing how Ophelia spins the elements of a tale most of us are familiar with is a lot of fun, and the more you know about Hamlet the more enjoyable it is.

Daisy Ridley does first-rate work in the title role. She brings some of the same fierceness to the character that she does to Rey in the Star Wars pictures. In her hands, we sense how much Ophelia wants to prevent Claudius from ruining everything, especially her ability to live happily with Hamlet. Clive Owen is fearsome as the evil king-by-way-of-murder, making Claudius a formidable villain for her to rail against. Naomi Watts is superb in two parts, playing not only Gertrude but also her sister Mechtild, a witchy woman who lives in the woods and helps Ophelia carry out a devious plan that alters what we think we know about her fate.

Director Claire McCarthy keeps the pace brisk, building suspense and expertly staging a climactic battle. The combination of music and imagery in that sequence is fantastic. For its many positive qualities, including that finale, Ophelia is mostly a popcorn melodrama, not high art. It's a lark, a “what if” story that puts a classic work of literature in a new light.

And that's perfectly fine. With good performances and clever additions to Shakespeare's play, there's enough here to provide real entertainment.


out of four

Ophelia is rated PG-13 for a scene of violence/bloody images, some sensuality, and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.