“Young adult” is one of those phrases that hints at a broad range of cinematic sins, but there’s no reason why a movie ostensibly targeted at teenagers should be inferior in terms of plot or conception to films made for a general audience. Alas, the very thought of a demographic seems to clap creative handcuffs on some filmmakers. It reminds me of the ‘children’s labels’ in art exhibitions that ask inane and patronising questions. Surely children are capable of forming their own judgements about a painting without being guided down some narrow path an adult has mapped out in advance.
So too with ‘young adult’ movies that display a simplistic morality which would make any intelligent teenager roll their eyes in disgust. I wish this wasn’t the case with Claire McCarthy’s Ophelia, which held out the intriguing prospect of retelling Hamlet from a female perspective, but the realisation is a travesty rather than a clever metafiction.
The first casualty is Shakespeare’s richness of language, which was obviously judged too complicated to be imposed upon a generation brought up on social media. Instead we get an utterly prosaic translation of famous lines into everyday English. I’ve always felt the language of the New English Bible makes a mockery of the King James version, but I’d never imagined Shakespeare’s words could be reduced to anything so drab and spiritless. Instead of “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” Polonious tells Laertes: “Don’t borrow any money or lend it.” You get the idea?
McCarthy and scriptwriter, Semi Chellas, envisage Ophelia not as a tragic figure, but as a proto-feminist: a strong, purposeful character who takes her destiny into her own hands – via a plot device shamelessly plundered from Romeo and Juliet. In this they are presumably following Lisa Klein’s novel, which is the basis for this story.
Daisy Ridley, in the lead role, will be familiar to many viewers as Rey in the interminable Star Wars franchise. As Ophelia she doesn’t have to wield a sword or be a martial arts expert, but she is left playing a character who is both assertive and passive, heroine and victim. Ridley settles on a style which is understated to the point of indifference, although nobody else does much better.
Clive Owen plays Claudius like a stage villain from a pantomime. George MacKay’s Hamlet is a gormless, lumpen lad who would be better on the rugby field. Naomi Watts is both a conflicted Queen Gertrude, and her twin sister, who lives in a nearby cave where she mixes magic potions and…
“Hang on!” you’re saying, “That wasn’t in the play!”
Indeed it wasn’t. The twin sister is an example of the level of invention involved in this tale, which often feels like a rejected episode of Game of Thrones. There’s such a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the palace and the sister’s secret cave that it cries out for a better public transport option.
The movie begins with Ophelia lying in the brook in emulation of Millais’s famous painting. We assume she has drowned, but she turns out to be an avid swimmer who likes to sneak away from the palace and plunge into the local billabong whenever she gets the chance. Hamlet is charmed by this habit, most probably because there can’t have been many ladies-in-waiting at the court of olde Denmark that were so fond of a dip.
This aquatic version of Ophelia is no more congenial as a plot device than providing the Queen with a twin sister. There’s a lot of time spent finessing Ophelia’s relationship with Gertrude, but when it comes to the crucial moments of the original play they are fudged beyond recognition. Hamlet’s dispatch of Polonious, for instance, which precipitates Ophelia’s downfall, happens off-camera. Unlike her Shakespearean counterpart, this Ophelia takes everything in her stride.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with looking at Hamlet, or any other work of literature from a feminist point-of-view, but not when the most basic dramatic requirements of the story are sacrificed to ideological imperatives. As the visibility of the female roles is increased and the male roles proportionately diminished, the poor quality of the writing is exposed. If this constitutes a deliberate dumbing-down to cater to a “young adult” audience it’s more reprehensible than a simple lack of imagination.
In Hamlet, Ophelia is manipulated by her father and rejected by her lover, who realises she is being used against him. In this film, both Hamlet and Ophelia feign madness while whispering messages to each other. All the ambiguity and desperation is drained from the plot, which becomes a conspiracy against the murderous usuper, Claudius. It’s not so much a feminisation of the story, but a banalisation – a mash-up that undermines the poetry and the psychological complexity of the original play.
It’s Hamlet himself who says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. The longer I’ve thought about this film my responses have firmed in only one direction.
Directed by Claire McCarthy
Written by Semi Chellas, after a novel by Lisa Klein, based on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’
Starring Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen, George MacKay, Tom Felton, Devon Terrell, Dominic Mafham
UK/USA, rated M, 114 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 3 August, 2019