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Ophelia shows why it's hard to rethink the Bard

Ophelia
directed by Claire McCarthy

A movie spinoff for Hamlet’s love interest goes down a familiar path.

We should be a little suspicious whenever an author or filmmaker picks up the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays and thinks, “Pah! I could do better.” It’s already been done with Hamlet in playwright Tom Stoppard’s enduring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Young-adult novelist Lisa Klein tried, too, when she wrote Ophelia in 2006, an attempt to tell Hamlet from the perspective of its doomed ingénue. Now, that book has been rendered into a bizarre, confused, gaudy, high-fantasy romp of a film.

As played by Daisy Ridley, Ophelia is a kind of elfin maiden frolicking across the Danish wilds. We get a newly devised backstory of poverty and social-climbing, in which she is a lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), and a postscript that turns the whole tale on its head.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Lurking somewhere around the set (which looks like painted cardboard) are George MacKay as a pretty good Hamlet, sullen and tempestuous, and the not-so-good usurper, Claudius, played by Clive Owen, who peers out from under a dense wig to deliver his lines.

And those lines … Occasionally some famous quotations appear, and the film is at its most comprehensible when veering closer to the play. But everyone seems weighed down by the kind of grandiloquence so common in these period pieces.

Far from the witches-and-castles-and-swordplay of this, a film devoted to Ophelia’s perspective would have to be a bitter, hard-edged thing. She has a sharp mind, but is reduced to being a servant to royalty. Anxious to love but spurned by Hamlet’s sullen dithering, she is driven mad, driven to suicide: a “poor wretch … incapable of her own distress”. Even that death is not seen onstage, but reported hastily with a few words of eulogy. That truly is tragic.

We shouldn’t fault the motive here. Shakespeare’s women are among the best of his characters and deserve to be the stars of their own shows. Nor should we whinge about “defiling the greats” with radical adaptations (Ian McKellen’s Richard III is still the best reimagining to date). No, the problem is inventing whole chunks of plot – dull and thematically unrelated plot at that – and tacking it onto what was already unimprovable.

IN CINEMAS FROM JULY 11 

★★1/2

Video: Madman Films

This article was first published in the July 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.