Ophelia shows why it's hard to rethink the Bard

by James Robins / 11 July, 2019
RelatedArticlesModule - Ophelia movie review

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.

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.

Latest

Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Underland
108287 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Books

Writer Robert Macfarlane finds deeps truths in Und…

by Tony Murrow

In a new book, Robert Macfarlane heads underground to ponder mankind’s effect on the planet.

Read more
Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for frying
108203 2019-07-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why extra virgin olive oil is back on the menu for…

by Jennifer Bowden

For decades, the word in the kitchen has been that olive oil shouldn’t be used for frying, but new research could change that.

Read more
Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours
108108 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Abstract artist Gretchen Albrecht's true colours

by Linda Herrick

Gretchen Albrecht paintings may be intangible, but they are triggered by real-life experience, she tells Linda Herrick.

Read more
That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a punch
108435 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Television

That's a Bit Racist is playful, but it packs a pun…

by Diana Wichtel

The taboo-busting doco is trying to change our default settings on race, but some people aren't stoked.

Read more
Are there too many tourists in NZ?
108444 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Are there too many tourists in NZ?

by North & South

Here's what's inside North and South's August 2019 issue.

Read more
Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a breakthrough in New Zealand?
108428 2019-07-16 00:00:00Z Tech

Huawei's dogged determination: Can it make a break…

by Peter Griffin

The tech company at the centre of a trade war between the US and China is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prove it can be trusted.

Read more
The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing Grace
108368 2019-07-15 00:00:00Z Movies

The many miracles of Aretha Franklin movie Amazing…

by Russell Baillie

A long-lost concert movie capturing Lady Soul in her prime is heading to the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Read more
The untold history of China's one child policy
108182 2019-07-14 00:00:00Z History

The untold history of China's one child policy

by RNZ

Nanfu Wang explains the story behind her film One Child Nation, which screens at the International Film Festival this July.

Read more