If this adaptation of her novel by Semi Chellas in any indication, Lisa Klein is no Tom Stoppard. In his 1966 play “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the British writer used the ploy of rewriting “Hamlet” from the perspective of two of its incidental characters to come up with a witty existential fable that earned comparisons to Beckett. (The 1990 film directed by Stoppard himself, on the other hand, was pretty much a disaster.) The conceit of “Ophelia” is to recast things from the viewpoint of the young woman who’s driven mad by Hamlet’s actions, and in the hands of Klein, Chellas and director Claire McCarthy, the result doesn’t so much re-imagine Shakespeare’s tragedy as trivialize it.
When we first meet Ophelia in the person of young Mia Quiney, she’s a scamp at the royal court whose non-noble father Polonius (Dominic Mafham) is working his way up the ladder of royal service. She earns the admiration of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), who appoints her one of her trainee ladies-in-waiting, although the other girls, especially snooty Cristiana (Daisy Head), mistreat her as not being their social equals. Ophelia’s elevation occurs at the same time that young Prince Hamlet (Jack Cunningham-Nuttail) leaves for study at Wittenberg.
Years pass, and Ophelia has grown into the lovely Daisy Ridley, still treated with contempt by the girls with whom she serves at the royal court, but esteemed by Gertrude for her ability to read naughty stories to her. She’s so trusted that the queen even uses her as a go-between with Gertrude’s twin sister Mechtild (also Watts), a sorceress who supplies her with drugs, including the potion with which she and her brother-in-law Claudius (Clive Owen, outfitted with a hideous wig that makes it different to assess his performance, though it seems pretty bad) conspire to kill her husband. They’ve been carrying on a torrid affair, you see.
That brings Hamlet (now George MacKay, more petulant than brooding), who’s long despised his arrogant uncle, back home thirsting for revenge, only to find Claudius married to Gertrude and wearing the crown. You might think you know what follows, but you don’t, because in this telling Ophelia is no shrinking violet destroyed by the machinations around her; she’s got spunk from the very start—making a comment as a rowdy child at court that attracts attention–and she uses her talents as skillfully as the times permit a woman to do. In the latter stages of the drama, it’s not she who goes mad—it’s Hamlet, who by the close has become, as MacKay presents him, a decidedly odd fellow who, for some reason, elects to use a heavy helping of eye shadow. Ophelia cultivates a friendship with Hamlet’s friend Horatio (Devon Terrell), who’s presented as one of the few reasonable people at court, and she’s certainly more controlled in her reaction to her father’s death than her hot-headed brother Laertes (Tom Felton). And reports of her death turn out to be exaggerated, thanks to her cleverness.
So this Ophelia is a proto-feminist, which is not an unreasonable viewpoint for a contemporary YA novel, which is what Klein’s book is, to adopt; but the portrait that emerges is nonetheless much too close to that of the put-upon high school kid one might find in a teen dramedy, down to the clichéd mean girl who torments her. And Ridley—while quite lovely—only sporadically manages to register what’s going on beneath the surface.
Klein’s expansions of the plot to put more emphasis on Ophelia, moreover, feel contrived and sometimes silly, even when they’re effectively cribbed from other Shakespearean plays. Her insertion of a secret marriage between Ophelia and Hamlet is actually an adroit addition, ratcheting up the urgency of the romance even if it’s dependent on “Romeo and Juliet.” But the adoption of another element from that play—a potion that can simulate death—is not so happy a device, especially since it leads to the invention of Mechtild, who frankly seems more sword-and-sorcery than Shakespeare, though Watts makes her fairly intriguing. A sequence in which Hamlet and Horatio come upon Ophelia as she’s taking a dip in a lake early on is too modern, in a corny way. And the embellishment of the ending, with Mechtild given a prominent role, is certainly no improvement
Nor are Chellas, McCarthy and the actors very successful in putting across some of the additions Klein made to scenes from the play. The worst example is probably the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, where the dialogue—being observed by other characters as evidence of Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship—is now punctuated by intense stage whispers through which the young lovers are supposed to be constructing their conversation. It’s so badly staged, and played by Ridley and MacKay, that it comes across as almost risible.
The one area in which “Ophelia” excels is the visuals, which are extravagant and often imaginatively unusual. Dave Warren’s production design is excellent, and Massimo Cantini Parrini’s costumes quite impressive; Denson Baker’s cinematography captures it all in luminous tones. (Ophelia’s “death” scene nicely mimics Millais’ famous painting.) The accompanying score by Steven Price complements the images well enough.
“Hamlet” tells us that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and though the adjective might be a mite excessive, much the same thing could be said about “Ophelia.” A promising idea has been executed in a fashion that’s resulted in more travesty than tragedy.