With a slight contemporary voice, Ophelia still is everything you’d want from a movie set in the Middle Ages. Sword fighting, sumptuous gowns, a touch of madness and non-American accents…what more could you want?
Chances are, a whole lot more. And fortunately, Ophelia delivers, and not just in big names. The movie transports Daisy Ridley from a galaxy far far away and puts her centre stage as leading lady Ophelia. Born out of nobility, her boldness as a young grubby lass catches the eye of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who immediately appoints her as her lady-in-waiting. Ophelia quickly becomes a favourite and is entrusted with the Queen’s secrets. All this becomes more complicated when she captures the attention of Prince Hamlet (George MacKay) and from there, we’re thrown into what many of us would recognize as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Except that it isn’t. I suspect that Hamlet aficionados might have a field day tearing up this script. Before that happens though, it should be noted that this movie is actually based on Lisa Klein’s novel of the same name. As someone who is unfortunately quite a “Hamlet noob”, I had no prior baggage of writing late night essays or having scrutinized Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”. I had no loyalties to the original author and came in wanting just a great night out. And that is exactly what I got.
Ophelia obviously takes some liberties, allowing us to see how she climbs the ranks to being Queen Gertrude’s favourite. One of the things I really loved was Gertrude’s complexities. It would have been so easy to make her a one-dimensional person. I mean, God knows we’ve seen this many times. The evil queen who can do no right, with a pseudo-daughter who can do no wrong. Instead, Naomi Watts plays a queen that is quite refreshingly human. We’re giggling in one scene at her indiscretions and then horrified the next at what she’s capable of. I might be making her sound like she suffers from mood swings, but instead, she’s someone who isn’t simply black or white, and hence, is relatable. Her connection with Ophelia is at times quite touching, and to see that relationship develop before it inevitably unravels feels quite bittersweet.
To be honest, my biggest fear about this movie stemmed from the Hamophelia duo (see what I did there…okay I’m sorry). I’ve never seen Daisy Ridley in a prominently romantic role. I’ve also never heard of George MacKay. Who is this guy? Oh wait, he was in Captain Fantastic. Actually, that was a great movie. So maybe this one will be okay. And it was okay. In fact, it was more than okay. Ridley and MacKay have some great chemistry on screen. It’s the sort of teenage romance that has just enough cringe to make you smile – because, if we’re honest, we’ve all been there. Ultimately, I’m just glad that we weren’t made to watch hours of two people (even if they are two fairly good looking people) pashing and then having to believe that it’s romance. The movie throws in more aspects that actually feel quite Shakespearan, such as witty innuendos and secret trysts. Anyway, there’s enough complexity to the relationship that helped me appreciate that it isn’t just “lust at first sight”.
MacKay plays the hotheaded Hamlet who finds it hard to back down from a challenge – or from a girl in a wet gown. I’m personally glad that his monologues are gone and instead we’re given a “teenage brain” trapped in a prince’s body. Sometimes, this result is pretty funny. At other times, it’s a source of heavy on-screen tension. Meanwhile, the strong and booksmart Ophelia is a worthy counterpart. Despite her confidence in who she is, Ophelia is a girl who is on the edge of innocence, and Ridley portrays this extremely well.
Here, Ophelia is a character who, for me, is reminiscent of Drew Barrymore’s Danielle in Ever After (a movie that I’ve watched far too many times), proving yet again that a female protagonist who can read, with a love of nature and a slightly ungainly (but endearing) walk is still a winning formula.