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Ophelia

guest review by Daniel Eagan

Shakespeare’s famously mad victim gets to tell her story in a visually sumptuous adaptation of Lisa Klein’s novel.

Flipping the point of view of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia redefines a character who rarely gets her due. Handsomely mounted, and with a strong cast, the film is ideally positioned to profit from a new alignment in cultural sensitivities.

Adapted by Semi Challas from a young adult novel by Lisa Klein, the script starts years before Hamlet, with Ophelia (played by Mia Quiney) a youngster roaming the castle Elsinore with her brother Laertes. Surprised that Ophelia can read, and has her own opinions, Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) takes her into her court.

It’s a dangerously unsettled court, with Claudius (Clive Owen) angling to remove his brother as king and take Gertrude for himself. Once in her teens, Ophelia (now played by Daisy Ridley) is hemmed in by intrigues, bickering among rivals, and the attentions of a love-sick Hamlet (George MacKay).

Finding her way without being assaulted, exiled, or losing her head requires the kind of quick reflexes and sullen courage Ridley displayed so well in her recent Star Wars outings. In fact Star Wars fans will feel at home with the plot’s infighting, hidden family relationships, and hurled imprecations.

Director Claire McCarthy seems to be aiming for a Game of Thrones vibe as well, but a carefully PG one that skims over the seriously sick doings at Elsinore. Shakespeare purists, meanwhile, will gnash their teeth over Ophelia’s liberties, like evil twin sisters and one-too-many scenes by the river.

Rethinking Hamlet from a feminist perspective makes sense enough. It’s just that McCarthy opted for a far sunnier take than the story warrants. Compare the sun-decked corridors, lissome dances and dewy glances here to the cold, stark, yet bustling and undeniably funny world Yorgos Lanthimos imagined for The Favourite.

Ophelia unfolds in a smooth, polished way, always pleasing to look at, not very demanding. Instead of facing mounting terror leading to irrevocable choices, Ridley’s character strides serenely through her scenes, always confident that her happy ending will arrive on time. But as each piece of Shakespeare’s play clicks into place, and the corpses pile up, Ophelia does manage to become an improbable survivor.

About the author: Daniel Eagan lives in New York City and writes for Film Journal, Filmmaker, American Cinematographer, and other outlets He has finished two books on the National Film Registry for Bloomsbury Press and is currently working on a biography of Sylvia Chang.

Follow Daniel Eagan on Twitter: @Film_Legacy 

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