Even if you haven’t read the Shakespeare play Hamlet, you still know the story. There was the prince who might be mad, the queen who married her husband’s wicked brother after her husband passed, and probably most iconic of all, the would-be princess who supposedly succumbed to madness herself and drowned, and has been the subject of fervent speculation since.
Was there ever a more perfect time for a film like Ophelia, which retells this story we all know from the title character’s perspective? The film knows what we came for, with its first shot an homage to the iconic imagery that has sprung up around her, as the beautiful young Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) lies perfectly still in water surrounded by flowers. In a touching narrative subversion, she only seems to sink, instead fading away to the film’s title. Then the voiceover begins, where Ophelia proclaims that she ALWAYS followed her heart and spoke her mind. Oh dear.
This Ophelia risks being just as much a caricature as the female characters of old, merely trading more traditional stereotypes for a more modern dressing, despite the period trappings. The rest of the movie doesn’t give reason to doubt this phenomenon as much as confirm it, even if it’s not only directed, but written by women. Ophelia begins the movie as a raggedy child longing for more knowledge until she’s taken in by the queen, scrubbed up, expected to act like a lady, and quickly becomes a young adult.
And oh dear, are the other girls mean to her. One tells her she dances like a goat, while the others have a hearty laugh at her expense. They mock her free-spirited ways that include swimming in the river, adoring nature, and adorning herself with flowers rather than jewels. Just when you think her outsider status didn’t need to be hammered home any further, she even overhears them gossiping about her father. Ridley deserves so much better than this, but she’s not the only one who’s done a disservice. Her one female friend at court, and the woman who stepped in as a kind of surrogate mother, Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), fares even worse.
The efforts Watts puts in to truly attempt to make something out of this garbage is very real, but what can you do when your storyline revolves around how old and neglected you are? Her main interests are romance and music, as if that were the only things that could possibly take up her time, with only her husband the king being concerned with those pesky matters of state, while Gertrude laments her neglect. Even her blandly appealing son Hamlet (George MacKay) becomes a source of pain as he also reminds her of her more advanced age and becomes less appreciative of her affections.
The gender politics of Ophelia become so laughably regressive that Gertrude compares the harassment Ophelia faces from the other young women to hens pecking each other, muses about how difficult it is for a mother when a son becomes a becomes a man and is no longer hers, and becomes excited when Hamlet and his Uncle Claudius (Clive Owen) sword fight, happily bestowing her scarf on Claudius when he defeats her son. A character who could genuinely claim neglect is Horatio (Devon Terrell), whose real moments of kindness and decency are less opportunities for appreciation than shortcuts to move the plot along.
As for Hamlet, he’s so damn boring it’s hard to get invested in much of anything he does, let alone the secret romance and marriage between him and Ophelia. Yet he is the one who remains the center of the action, even as Ophelia remains the main character who manages to witness many of the key events of his story, while of course harboring no ambitions whatsoever of being queen herself. There is a subplot involving a witch and double casting that would be interesting if it were used to delve into perceptions of female hysteria and the roles women are expected to play rather than just used for a twist ending everyone will see coming.
Ridley and Watts at least give us some enjoyable moments despite the material, but the real star is cinematographer Denson Baker, who ensures that the film’s surroundings, if not the story, are truly awe-inspiring, whether it’s a castle filled with sumptuous tapestries patiently awaiting an eavesdropper, or a river that seems alive and eager to upend one of the most famous character arcs in history. In a film written and directed by women that nevertheless revolves around what men think of them, it’s certainly fitting that the talent that truly shines is also the husband of director Claire McCarthy.