Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, George MacKay, Clive Owen, Tom Felton
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…. deserves recognition for its artistic breadth, but also criticism for its own shortcomings, as it’s much more fascinating to examine its influences rather than itself as a unique work.
A major reason why William Shakespeare remains the most adapted writer in the English language is that, for as illustrious as his own works are, the space between his lines are infinitely pliable for alternative stories to be told. Hamlet is one of the best examples of this, with its narrative echoing out into films ranging from Kurosawa’s noir effort The Bad Sleep Well, to the Second City TV spin-off Strange Brew, to Jason Witter’s Z-movie Hamlet The Vampire Slayer.
Ophelia, in particular, is a more emphatically feminist retelling of the classic story, taking a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead approach in giving one of the supporting characters, Hamlet’s to-be Ophelia, the lead role.
From the off-set, this both looks and feels like real Shakespeare beyond the mildly fanfiction stylings of the premise. The sets and costuming are vividly ornate and rustic, Steven Price’s soundtrack gives the whole affair a very regal, almost mythical air that seeps into every frame, and while the writing unfortunately dumbs down some of the source material’s monologues, it still carries that same sense of lyrical flourish that makes the dialogue resonate.
It also fits in with Shakespeare’s stylings in how it owes a lot of its imagery to folklore. From the Old Testament to the Greek Pantheon to the Brothers Grimm, even a potential reference to Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, Australian director Claire McCarthy (The Waiting City) and cinematographer Denson Baker, and writer Semi Chellas (Mad Men, upcoming American Woman and Charlie’s Angels) create a synergy with the Bard’s own writing, taking cues from classic stories to create their own. That synergy also comes from plot beats taken directly from the Bard’s other writings, namely Romeo & Juliet and As You Like It, creating this almost Tarantino-esque mash-up of Shakespearean tropes and acknowledgement of artistic predecessors.
As for the retooling of Hamlet specifically, it reframes the story to not just focus on Ophelia but also Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, a unique perspective on a story largely dominated by the egos of men. With Gertrude, captured with palpable tragedy by Naomi Watts, we see not just a bystander but a hopeless romantic at the throes of possessive brutes, the inclusion of which blurs Hamlet’s self-supposed noble cause. And with Ophelia, as per the recent Mary, Queen Of Scots, agency takes the back seat as the preservation of how women are ‘supposed’ to act takes the wheel in the eyes of those in power.
And in all that lies the big problem: With all its connections to other works, be they within the Shakespearean canon or works that influenced it, there isn’t nearly enough of its own worth to balance it out. It’s a feminist rewrite but of an unfortunately bland variety, one that only scrapes the surface of what the original already put out there. It deserves recognition for its artistic breadth, but also criticism for its own shortcomings, as it’s much more fascinating to examine its influences rather than itself as a unique work.