You may not yet know it, but a re-telling of ‘Hamlet’ from Ophelia’s point of view is exactly what this world needs.
There’s a sequence at the end of Ophelia — and don’t worry, insomuch as it’s possible to spoil the end of Hamlet, I don’t intend to do so here — that is, without a doubt, the most over-the-top version of a Shakespeare tale since Baz Luhrmann put Leo DiCaprio and Claire Danes in the world’s most notable love affair. Not in the sense that it’s flanked by the lyrical stylings of Prince and Radiohead or anything. More in the slow-motion cinematography, amped-up camp of a modern costume party film kind of way. It is here that Ophelia, the Daisy Ridley-led piece of feminist fan fiction from Australian director Claire McCarthy, really feels most comfortable in its own skin. It’s an absurdist retelling of Hamlet from the POV of his tortured love. And it’s a funky blast of fresh air for a genre that often takes itself far too seriously.
There’s something about Daisy Ridley that’s hard to place, at least when looking at her work critically. Is she the kind of actress who is genuinely dynamic and naturally talented, or is she the benefactor of perfect casting? With only Star Wars and a smattering of smaller roles on her resume, it’s been difficult to nail this down. But in Ophelia, she uses a wry smile and a wide array of charms to carry a film (alongside Naomi Watts, who is also quite good) that delivers humor, tension, darkness, whimsy, and grace. There’s a lack of self-seriousness that feels apart from what we’ve seen in Ridley’s other work and if we’re being honest, it’s exactly the kind of performance you hope for when a young actor steps outside a career-defining franchise.
Of course, Ridley isn’t the only person who showed up for the costume party. Naomi Watts lends some gravitas to Gertrude, Hamlet’s overbearing and erratic mother. Clive Owen is a hilariously wigged, uber-machismo Claudius, a hammy foil for both Ophelia and her darling prince. And George MacKay, best known for his role in Captain Fantastic, as ole Prince Ham, himself. MacKay is an interesting study in audience attention here. His performance as Hamlet is solid, believably naive with bumbling charm and a streak of madness. But he’s well overshadowed by Ridley’s Ophelia, who, at least in this version, is the driving force of almost everything (good and bad) that befalls him.
The easy criticism is to say that Ophelia could be from the start what it is in those final moments. A little campier, a little more over the top, and a little more poppy. But it works well as it exists, bridging the gap between an earnest reimagining of Hamlet and Ophelia’s tale with some modern sensibilities and a funky, vibrant film in which Tom Felton (as Laertes) has a slow-motion sword fight set to some Massive Attack-esque beats. It’s all in the spirit of reclaiming and remixing a classic tale and having fun with it. It’s Ophelia getting ready to poison herself to escape the clutches of Claudius’ guards, but she gives us a sideways smile first.