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Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Movie review: Ophelia, dir Claire McCarthy (2018)

It’s utterly shocking that this film isn’t being given its due. When I saw it, at a tiny theatre in Newtown, in Sydney, there were about a dozen people in the audience. Its global critical reception, too, seems to have been pale and I can’t for the life of me understand what is wrong with people. Are they stupid or is it just that they have terrible taste? The word that, in my mind, comes closest to summing up this film is, “deft.”

I’m not going to rewrite that. No, I won’t take the quotes away, because this is a film that revels in the spoken word and it is also full of knowing nods to artists who have come before its creators and who have shared posterity’s opinion of Shakespeare: that he was possibly our single, most influential writer.

The writing is brilliant (concise, epigrammatical, echoing WS) and the script was, I learn from looking online, adapted from a young adult novel by an American author who was an academic. The script is by the American Semi Chellas. The only problem I had with it was the use of the word “science” (spoken at one point by Horatio, who is played by Devon Terrell, a black actor). In the early 17th century the expression that was used was “natural philosophy” but you can’t put footnotes in movies, so the more modern word was used instead.

The directing is as good as the writing: even better, and there are no qualifications from me concerning McCarthy’s work here. The narrative is fast-paced and even thought the plot is intricate you never lose track of what is going on. Part of the reason for the film’s solid structure is the quality of the cinematography and the music. It all falls into place at the right time.

The reliance on the English Pre-Raphaelite painters to provide the visual model for the pond scenes was especially touching, given their celebration – inspired by their predecessors the Romantic poets – of Shakespeare’s artistry. This was accompanied by an overall visual richness that allows the viewer to take pleasure in the trappings of luxury amid the paraphernalia of the Renaissance ruling class. The shots, that help to constitute the film’s cinematic vocabulary, are varied and well-chosen and the camera doesn’t linger on undeserving objects and so create any false dramatic effects. No plodding, nothing excessively deliberate, no cliché.

I thought that the acting by the majors was exceptional. Clive Owen is a suitably despotic and mercurial Claudius. Naomi Watts as the queen and her sister Mechtild (a sister absent from the play that started all this dramatic art) is robust and carries off the demanding parts she is given with aplomb. A boyish George MacKay as the earnest Hamlet is the perfect foil for the more glamorous Daisy Ridley in the title role. Together, this troupe brings about a series of twists and turns that might easily have overcome a less skilful director or else resulted in something awkward and trite.

There are also strong performances from secondary players: Sebastian De Souza’s malevolent libertine Edmund, Dominic Mafham’s avuncular and sadly powerless Polonius, Daisy Head as a bitchy lady-in-waiting named Christiana, and Tom Felton as a loyal Laertes. Without these meaningful components the movie would be materially poorer.

This is a work of art made by women who are imagining a world that was, for many of their gender, difficult and dangerous. It is also a giving-back to and a creative celebration of Shakespeare’s talent; a movie for our latter day that borrows all the drama it needs from an earlier and more earthy time. Forget ‘Game of Thrones’, forget Harry Potter, this little beauty will live on longer still. It’s a movie for the ages that gives agency to a character usually considered merely a victim.

I haven’t read the story the script is based on so I cannot comment on how closely it sticks to the novel, but what Chellas and the novelist (American Lisa Klein) provide is something both deep and wise. I was filled with emotion on many occasions while watching the movie. Certain ideas that emerge in the course of the thing offer a tonic for complacency, such as the one that has Ophelia, who seems to possess a large proportion of the raw common-sense on offer among the characters shown, become the ruler of Denmark. But how optimistic can you be given the realities of social organisations today and given the second-rate men who largely constitute our leadership?

There was little time to reflect on anything for too long because the story progresses so fast. And there is absolutely nothing mawkish about its portrayal. Two scenes must serve to illustrate the quality of the acting and the direction.

In a play famous for its metafictional components, the scene where Hamlet exposes Claudius’ guilt with a piece of theatre is powerfully done here. The acting especially by Owen is superb, evoking the strength of the ability of art, if used in the right way, to serve an immediate utilitarian purpose. The other scene that stood out for me has a similarly self-referential drift, and this is the scene near the end of the movie where Ophelia gives flowers to Gertrude and Claudius while appearing to be mad. The only thing that saves her from the king’s wrath, in fact, is the fact that she is perceived to be out of her mind with grief over her father’s death, but the shot that comes before her little performance, as she is hiding at the door of the chamber where the royals and her brother Laertes are sitting at a table, tells us that it’s a fabrication conducted as part of a larger scheme aimed at survival.

The major themes of loyalty, constancy, justice, and power that the play ‘Hamlet’ embodies are also found in this movie, but you are given additional plotlines absent in the original including Mechtild’s unborn child and the role in that story of Claudius. You are given new things to think about too: such as the power of love and the importance of forgiveness. And romance: there’s plenty of it. Even some magic.

The ending (it’s impossible to even hint at it here, it would spoil the thing for people who have not seen it and who want to) has about it a rightness that is all of a piece with the very particular nature of the character of Ophelia that Klein and Chella give us. This is the “untold story” of Ophelia. A story that was never meant to be told. But now it’s been told, and we have to deal with it, and personally I think WS, if he were alive today, would be delighted with what has been achieved in this tribute.

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