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Ophelia 2019 ****

Don’t Bet On The Prince might be just as good a title for Claire McCarthy’s feminist revision of Hamlet; taking a classical wronged woman and redressing the balance in her favour is very much in turn with 2019’s mores, and they don’t come much more wronged than Ophelia. Played by Daisy Ridley, she’s still Hamlet’s girl, Polonius’s daughter, Laertes’s sister, a suicide girl and more, but she’s also her own person. Adapting Lisa Klein’s YA bestseller, Semi Chellas has taken substantial liberties with Shakespeare’s classic text, but if you want you Hamlet old-fashioned, male-centred and boring, then there’s plenty of old-school texts kicking around. In the meantime, this 2019 Ophelia manages to pull off a considerable coup by not only giving her agency, but crafting an unexpectedly upbeat ending from the starkest tragedy.

There’s probably no spoilers required for the framework; Hamlet suspects that his uncle Claudius has poisoned his father and married his mother Gertrude (Naomi Watts), and sets out to take revenge. The antic disposition he puts on to deflect attention from gawping onlookers at the Elsinore Wimbledon alienates his loving girlfriend Ophelia, who ends up topping herself after Hamlet (George MacKay) accidentally kills her father. That’s not an easy story to invert to a feminist perspective, but McCarthy’s film manages the feat by doubling down on supernatural elements, with witches, potions, and an emphasis on righting wrongs, namely the behaviour of Claudius (Clive Owen, not holding back). With an ostracised local witch (Naomi Watts) supplying magic potions to all comers, this ain’t your dad’s Hamlet, but it might just be your mamma’s.

Not all of the changes work; having Ophelia secretly whispering information to Hamlet during a scene in which she’s been used as bait doesn’t so much inform the text as turn it upside down. But Ridley is a great Ophelia, and the look of the film is rich and lustrous, right down to the opening shot that lifts from Sir John Everett Millais’s famous painting. Young adults of all ages and sexes should dig the way Shakespeare’s text is reformed here, making Ophelia right up there with Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in the key texts to serve as introduction to the great playwright herself.

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