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'Ophelia' Sees The World Differently Than Shakespeare's Prince Hamlet


The play Shakespeare called "Hamlet" has been reimagined as a new film called "Ophelia." Critic Bob Mondello says its leading lady sees the world a little differently than the sweet prince did.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The first images are of what appears to be a young woman's corpse floating in a pond - unnerving if you know Ophelia goes mad and drowns in "Hamlet." Then we hear her voice, reaching us perhaps from that undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.


DAISY RIDLEY: (As Ophelia) You may think you know my story. Many have told it.

MONDELLO: Shakespeare included. But this time, she's doing the telling. So we flashback to way before Shakespeare even thought about Ophelia, a whole new backstory about her as a little girl chasing after her brother as he goes to a class that's only for boys.


CALUM O'ROURKE: (As Young Laertes) Come back, Ophelia.

MIA QUINEY: (As Young Ophelia) But think of all the books.

O'ROURKE: (As Young Laertes) I'll teach you later.

MONDELLO: And he does. But she's already a clever girl, as she proves when she sneaks past her father Polonius into a palace going-away party and hears the king's brother offering a toast.


CLIVE OWEN: (As Claudius) Prince Hamlet, leaving us for the great University of Wittenberg, 15 years old today, apple of his mother's eye. Of course, it was an apple that tempted a woman in the Garden of Eden.

NAOMI WATTS: (As Gertrude) I had always thought it was a snake.

MONDELLO: Claudius is flirting, and the queen has taken the bait. But the party crasher is more skeptical.


QUINEY: (As Young Ophelia) I think the apple is quite innocent in the matter.

DOMINIC MAFHAM: (As Polonius) Ophelia.

WATTS: (As Gertrude) What is an Ophelia?

MAFHAM: (As Polonius) The exact copy and very picture of her departed and much lamented mother. My Ophelia, my daughter, my treasure.

MONDELLO: The queen, about to be an empty-nester, is intrigued.


WATTS: (As Gertrude) A treasure most in wanted polishing.

MAFHAM: (As Polonius) This is ladies' work, to polish such a treasure. And alas, I am no lady.

WATTS: (As Gertrude) Alas, indeed.

QUINEY: (As Young Ophelia) I may be a lass, but there is no call for such lassing. I would not want to be a lad.

WATTS: (As Gertrude) Then she shall be one of my ladies, and we shall see to the raising of her.

MONDELLO: So while Hamlet's away, the girls will play. The others in the queen's retinue sneer at Ophelia's common birth. But what's not common about her is that Laertes did teach her to read, so her wit is sharp when a cultish Hamlet returns from college...


GEORGE MACKAY: (As Hamlet) I remember this is an excellent place to fish.

MONDELLO: ...And catches her, now played by Daisy Ridley, bathing in that pool near the castle.


MACKAY: (As Hamlet) A wondrous fish indeed inhabits the grove.

RIDLEY: (As Ophelia) The fish would like to come ashore.

MACKAY: (As Hamlet) Well, the fish is very welcome.

RIDLEY: (As Ophelia) No fish comes willing to the fisherman.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) My Lord, it's one of the queen's ladies in waiting.

MACKAY: (As Hamlet) Then she will not mind waiting until I catch a fish.

RIDLEY: (As Ophelia) Of all the ladies, I'm least fond of waiting (ph).

MONDELLO: Australian director Claire McCarthy pictures Ophelia as far more assertive than she is in the play; Queen Gertrude, too, made downright ferocious by Naomi Watts. The film script weaves a tale around these women that upends Shakespeare's version while including plenty of nods in his direction. You don't need to know the bard's work, but you'll have extra fun untangling the movie's plot threads if you do. There's a long-separated twins storyline you might call a tragedy of errors, a sleeping potion scheme straight out of "Romeo And Juliet" and conversational renderings of all those "Hamlet" scenes where Ophelia is present - her dad's advice to her college-bound brother, for instance, with a less poetic neither a borrower nor a lender be.


MAFHAM: (As Polonius) Now, remember; keep your own counsel. Don't be familiar or vulgar. And don't fight; or if you do, win. Dress well, but don't spend too much. Don't borrow any money or lend it. And above all, be true to yourself.

MONDELLO: To thine own self, be concise. What the bard's Polonius took 24 lines to say, this Polonius manages in fewer than 20 seconds. Brevity is the soul of wit, and sumptuousness the soul of costume drama, which the movie "Ophelia" quite extravagantly is. The images are gorgeous; the feminism, gratifying. And wait until you see that mad scene. Daisy Ridley's Ophelia isn't mad. She's furious. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.