The fire and passion of William Shakespeare’s masterful play Hamlet finds new life through the lens of director Claire McCarthy and the performance of actress Daisy Ridley in Ophelia and the result is a lavishly rich cinematic experience.
Set in the 14th Century but spoken in a contemporary voice, Ophelia is a dynamic re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) takes centre stage as Queen Gertrude’s (Naomi Watts) most trusted lady-in-waiting. Beautiful and intelligent, she soon captures the attention of the handsome Prince Hamlet (George MacKay) and a forbidden love blossoms. As war brews, lust and betrayal are tearing Elsinore Castle apart from within and Ophelia must decide between her true love or her own life in order to protect a very dangerous secret.
Adapting any of the works of the great Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon always presents a worthy challenge for any filmmaker, but when that filmmaker reinterprets them from an entirely different perspective, well, then audiences are really in for a surprise. Luckily director Claire McCarthy is up for the challenge here with Ophelia, a bold and dramatic retelling of Hamlet that frames the story from the point-of-view of Hamlet’s one true love, Ophelia, and it’s a brilliant angle to take. Seen from the perspective of a woman, this ancient tale’s narrative of bloodlust and tragedy makes this classic play that much more relevant, and McCarthy does a terrific job probing the psychological complexity that lies at the heart of this story.
For actress Daisy Ridley, the role of Ophelia presents her with plenty of challenge and opportunity and this young performer rises to the occasion. Ridley’s performance here is that of the ingenue mixed in with an earthy, textured quality. Her Ophelia is a young woman who is very close to nature and who brings a calm sense of serenity to the halls of power of Elsinore Castle. But as the madness of power grips the castle, soon Ophelia’s love for her dear Hamlet is tested with the violence of the Prince’s need for vengeance. Ridley really brings to life the humanity and sincerity of Ophelia, and you really feel her desire for life and prosperity. She deals with some very heavy issues here, and her performance as Ophelia is a real step forward in a growing maturity in her career and she absolutely draws the audience’s attention into the film’s complex narrative.
Sharing the screen beside Ridley’s Ophelia is Naomi Watts in a sensational double role as both Queen Gertrude and a mysterious character whose actions have plenty of malice on the story. Watts plays off of Ridley well, and she assumes the decorum and status of the Queen of Denmark with considerable power, and bears a strong presence throughout the film’s events. Here Watts strikes a terrific balance as the Queen as she projects both a regal elegance, but also dangerous competitiveness, as she throws her own jealousies and insecurities onto her handmaidens and this unwanted attention definitely does not fall past Ophelia. This leads to plenty of great dramatic tension between these two characters and the resulting scenes that play out between the two of them certainly keep you on your toes.
Alongside some wonderful performances, McCarthy’s Ophelia is simply a beautiful film to look at. Visually rich and shining at every corner, this film is a piece of art and it is beautifully captured through the lens of cinematographer Denson Baker. Through the presence of natural light and rich hues of colour, McCarthy and Baker craft a film that absolutely holds the attention of the audience and brings them into the operatic drama that is present throughout the film’s narrative. Of all of Ophelia‘s striking visual set pieces, it’s the ball scene inside Elsinore Castle which really captures your attention and it is a stunning combination of art direction, costuming, hair and make-up and cinematography. Alongside its grand visuals, McCarthy also finds innovative ways to illuminate the play’s twists and turns such as the appearance of the Ghost and the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.
Ophelia is an incredibly rich and lavish cinema experience that re-energizes the narrative of Hamlet and focuses in on the incredible talent that is Daisy Ridley. Those who love historical drama with a twist will be in for a real treat with this one.
Image: Madman Films