Friday, May 17, 2024

"Ophelia" (2018)

It's always fun to see a new take on a favorite old story.  I have read Ophelia by Lisa Klein (read my review here) twice, and I very much enjoy the way Klein reimagines Hamlet from Ophelia's perspective while also putting a few spins on the story that draw from other Shakespeare plays.

When Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) is still fairly young, Queen Gertrude (Naoimi Watts) takes her in and helps her learn to be a lady-in-waiting.  Ophelia's father Polonius (Dominic Mafham) is pleased by this because he hopes it will help advance his career, as he is a new advisor to King Hamlet (Nathaniel Parker).

Until he goes away to further his education in Paris, Ophelia's brother Laertes (Tom Felton) helps her learn to read and learn things from the books kept locked in the library, which girls aren't supposed to enter.  The other ladies-in-waiting are not kind to Ophelia because she is a commoner, but the fact that she can read endears her to Queen Gertrude, who has Ophelia read aloud to her when she is bored.

Eventually, Prince Hamlet (George MacKay) returns from his own studies abroad with his friend Horatio (Devon Terrell).  Ophelia and Hamlet flirt and hesitantly begin to fall in love, but Hamlet and Horatio must return to their studies in Wittenberg, and Ophelia must stay at Elsinore.

Queen Gertrude allows herself to become distracted by her husband's brother, Claudius (Clive Owen).  Distracted from what?  Loneliness, fear of aging, and worry that her husband is more interested in politics than in her, basically.  When King Hamlet dies mysteriously and suddenly, Prince Hamlet and Horatio return for his funeral, but arrive only in time to witness the queen's remarriage.  She weds Claudius, who is then declared King of Denmark, an elected role, but one that would probably have gone to the prince if his uncle had not stepped up to the throne before Hamlet could return.  

Hamlet tries to figure out the truth behind his father's death and Ophelia tries to help Gertrude, who may be in danger from her new husband.  Gertrude has sent Ophelia several times to visit a healer and potions maker (also Naomi Watts) who lives in the woods outside the castle.  Ophelia tries to bolster the queen with her own courage and optimism, but Gertrude relies more and more on tinctures and potions from the woman in the woods.

SPOILER ALERT for the next paragraph because this story DEVIATES from Shakespeare's version, so the following things may be surprises.

Ophelia and Hamlet get married in secret.  Ophelia tries to convince Hamlet to run off and start a new life with her, but he becomes increasingly determined to find out if his uncle killed his father.  In the end, Ophelia chooses to leave without him, with Horatio's help, and she is able to escape the madness in Elsinore.


This is a very, very pretty movie. The costumes are lavish and lovely, especially the dresses worn by Gertrude and her ladies-in-waiting.

I like that the ladies tend to wear the same clothing over and over, with different accessories or slight alterations.  That seems very realistic, much more so than everyone having a different outfit for every scene.

Elsinore is stately inside and out.

Some of the staging and cinematography is particularly striking.  Here is King Hamlet, being prepared for burial.  If you click on the image, you can see it larger, and you'll notice how many skulls are in this shot.  It's a small detail, but really cool.  

All the candles remind me so much of the underground, candlelit graveyard from another Hamlet retelling, The Wild and the Dirty (Johnny Hamlet) (1968).

The opening shot of the film is particularly cool because it deliberately recreates the famous painting Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais.

Anyway, time to talk a bit about the characters and how they are portrayed!

Daisy Ridley's Ophelia refers to herself as being headstrong and willful, but I mostly get the sense that she simply cares very deeply about the people around her.  She doesn't let other people make up her mind for her, but she does take their opinions into consideration.  She's a sweet and loving daughter and sister, and tries to be a loyal servant to the queen, but she is mostly very lonely.  The other ladies-in-waiting pick on her and tease her and shun her, and so of course she is warmed and charmed by Hamlet paying attention to her.

George MacKay's Hamlet is at times stubborn, at times clueless, and at times very tender and affectionate.  Which is how I like my Hamlets.  He's the kind of mess we all have been in our late teens and early twenties, only he's been plopped into a horrific situation and has no good guidance for how to react to it.  I like how playful this Hamlet can be, and how much he does appear to care about Ophelia.

However, the romance between Hamlet and Ophelia leaves me feeling something is lacking.  In the book, there is a lot of time spent developing their friendship, affection, and love.  In the movie, they dance once and have a couple of conversations and arguments, and then they're pledging eternal love all of a sudden.  I wish the filmmakers had spent another ten minutes on showing their relationship deepening, or even given us a five-minute montage of them enjoying hanging out together and getting to know each other.  That's my one real quibble about this film -- the book is much better in that regard.

Tom Felton's Laertes is studious and earnest.  I love that he teaches Ophelia to read and sneaks her into the library.  He definitely has some hotheaded tendencies, which works well for the ending.  He's not a favorite Laertes for me, but I like him.

Devon Terrell's Horatio deserves more screen time.  He's much more important in the book, and becomes an ally for Ophelia.  Here, he mostly hangs out on the sidelines.  What time he gets is very nice, though -- he's a bit playful, has big dreams for the future, and is a good friend to Hamlet.

Naomi Watts's Gertrude is a mess, but she's meant to be -- she's like a cautionary tale of what can happen to a woman if she believes her value as a person is tied to her looks and how much other people like her.  

Clive Owens's Claudius is scary.  I usually find Owens quite handsome, but he's harsh and unpleasant for most of this film.  He's definitely doing the hulking villain thing to the utmost.

Dominic Mafham's Polonius is the nicest Polonius I have ever seen.  He has a kindly relationship with both Ophelia and Laertes, though he's a bit distant -- but they have a lovely family dynamic, obviously caring about one another even if they don't always know how to show it.  Ophelia gives him a sweet little kiss on the cheek at one point, and he smiles so sweetly.  Though he does think that Ophelia's being a lady-in-waiting and then attracting the prince's attention are both things that can advance his career, this Polonius does not use his daughter as a pawn the way some do.

One random tiny thing I love about this movie: Nathaniel Parker playing King Hamlet.  He played Laertes in the 1990 movie starring Mel Gibson.  He was my first Laertes, and a big part of why I love that character so much.  That makes it extra 'specially awesome to see him here in a different role!  He's an interesting Hamlet too -- warm one moment and distrustful the next.  I'd love to have seen more of him, as I think they could have fleshed him out a bit more.

Also a random side note:  Naomi Watts is married to Liev Schreiber in real life, and Liev Schreiber plays my favorite Laertes ever, in the version of Hamlet (2000) starring Ethan Hawke.  This also makes me happy.

Is this movie family friendly?  Um, it's not really appropriate for kids, as there is a short love scene (no nudity, and the couple is married), there's a witch character with some mildly creepy stuff in her home, and there's some poisoning and stabbing and so on.  Fine for older teens, depending on the teen?

I have an ongoing series called Hamlet Comparisons where I like to rate the various characters as portrayed in different adaptations and productions of Hamlet.  Here's how I'd rate these:

Hamlet: A 
Horatio: A- 
Laertes: A- 
Ophelia: A 
Claudius: A- 
Gertrude: A- 
Polonius: A-
Overall Production: A

This has been my contribution to the It's in the Name of the Title Blogathon hosted this week by Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews and Rebecca from Taking Up Room.


  1. I haven't seen this movie, but it sounds intriguing and worthwhile. I'm all for taking liberties with the plot of "Hamlet" -- it's been around so long and is so well known that it can stand a bit of reframing.

    1. Debra, it's one of the better straight-up retellings of Hamlet I have seen (as opposed to performances of the play). The changes to the plot are generally things you see in other Shakespeare plays, which makes them work really well.

  2. For some reason, I didn't realize this was a book before it was a movie!! I should definitely read it!

    1. Katie, yes!!! The book is like 15+ years old. And really good.

  3. Thanks for bringing this and yoy to the blogathon, love to know how Burton shapes up as Hamlet so will keep a look out for this.. unless it was done earlier. I do like to see other perspectives in film and TV, so will keep an eye out for this. Thanks for joining. Added you to today's Day 4 post.

    1. Gill, so glad you enjoyed this! I LOVE Burton's Hamlet -- I reviewed it here a few years back, complete with my ratings of the character portrayals.

      (Let's see if third time is the charm for getting my HTML code for that link to work...)

  4. Looks like an interesting take on the classic text. The only names I recognize in the cast are Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts but I like them both, so will give this a watch!

    1. Chris, it's a really enjoyable film. I suspect you might especially enjoy the dual role from Naomi Watts -- she's riveting, especially in the final scene.

  5. I'm not a huge fan of Shakespeare, but your review of Ophelia sounds like a very interesting take on his work. Plus, the cast is quite impressive!

    1. John L. Harmon, yes! Even those who aren't big fans of Shakespeare can still dig this film just for the great cast. Also, most of the language is not Shakespeare's, though they do weave some of his lines in.

  6. I haven't seen this film yet. Shakespearean films can sometimes fall flat but from reading your review I can see that this one def isn't! xox

    1. A Vintage Nerd, Shakespeare movies definitely run the gamut from amazing to abysmal. Since this one is a retelling, it definitely avoids some of the more common pitfalls.

  7. Very interesting! What is it with "Hamlet" that people like going at the story from different points of view? I can't think of any other Shakespeare play that's gotten that treatment. Thanks again for joining the blogathon--this was a wonderful review. :-)

    1. Rebecca, in my opinion, it's the universal themes of Hamlet that make it so popular for retelling -- duty vs. your own desires, a hatred for changes you can't control, the need to resign yourself to a situation that you didn't create but must somehow deal with... it resonates with a lot of us in a lot of ways. And that makes it uniquely good for retelling from multiple different viewpoints, I think. It lets us look at this issues in new ways that can help us come to grips with them in our own lives.

      Glad you enjoyed this review!

  8. Very good looking movie, as you say, and reminded me of Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead, which is another radical take on the same play...

    1. Anonymous, yes! This definitely has some kinship to Rosancrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Here, we also get to see several of the famous scenes, like the duel at the end and the nunnery scene, from the sidelines or from a new angle, which is lots of fun.

  9. I'm always down to see a period piece, and I like the idea of the film's presentation from Ophelia's point of view. I'm sold! Thank you for introducing this one to me, Rachel, for giving me another film to add to my watchlist. Good stuff!

    -- Karen

    1. Karen, I hope you enjoy this when you get a chance to watch it! For a period drama fan, it's a real treat.

  10. janet.aldrich@gmail.com5:53 PM, May 30, 2024

    The casting on this is very interesting, but I think this is one case where I'd rather read the book. Although, if I change my mind, is it on Prime Video, do you know?

    Side note:I was trying to remember. Was Ian Holm Polonius for Mel Gibson or Kenneth Branagh?

    Finally ... Did you ever read An Antic Disposition by Alan Gordon? If not, you should. It's a retelling of Hamlet with a frame story about Feste, who is a jester (from Twelfth Night originally, IIRC). I think you'd like Gordon's books. His conceit is that the Medieval Jesters Guild was a kind of MI6, manipulating the royals and nobles behind the scenes to arrange events as they should be.
    Anyway, I enjoyed your review.

    Ps was the whole Fortinbras thing left out of this, a la Mel Gibson's version?

    1. Janet, I don't have Prime right now, so I'm not sure. It looks like the DVD is cheaper than a digital copy on Amazon right now, but that's all I can find.

      Ian Holm was Polonius in the Mel Gibson version.

      I did read An Antic Disposition! My late friend Cheryl gave it to me for Christmas years ago. Such a fun book! I'd like to read the rest of the series at some point.

      Fortinbras is very much in this one.


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