The Two Reviews: Ophelia and Midsommar

Ophelia (2018, IFC Films)
Directed by Claire McCarthy. Screenplay by Semi Chellas. Featuring Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen and George MacKay.

Ophelia is a retelling of the classic Shakespearean romantic tragedy Hamlet from the perspective of Ophelia, one of the most iconic tragic female figures in literature. But this is a retelling of her story – a slight alternative narrative. McCarthy’s film is based on a script by Semi Chellas, itself based on the novel Ophelia by Lisa Klein. As you may know, Ophelia is a central character in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. It is a pretty bold step to rewrite a central figure in perhaps the best known play by the Bard of Avon, but it is a brave and sensitive take on an enigmatic literary character.

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The film opens with the now famous artistic representation of Ophelia, semi-immersed in a shallow lake, clutching a bouquet of flowers. She opens her eyes and her story is told, beginning with her childhood introduction to the Royal Court and on meeting young Hamlet (a young Ophelia is played by Mia Quiney and young Hamlet by Jack Cunningham-Nuttall) through to the tragic climax of the duel between Hamlet (MacKay) and her brother Laertes (Tom Felton). The central figure of course is the adult Ophelia (Ridley), and she is a stronger, less vulnerable women than in the traditional account. Like Hamlet, she is driven by injustice and there is, as a consequence, method in the madness.

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The film is well-made, beautifully scenic and visually stunning. Cinematography by Denson Baker, lighting, set design, costume design and film location are all excellent, combining into an aesthetic 100 minutes of film. The cast are all good, but the performances by Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts (who plays both Gertrude and Mechtild) and Clive Owen (Claudius) are all superb. George MacKay is a very fine Hamlet, Tom Felton is a convincing Laertes, and Devon Terrell is an equally fine Horatio. The script is interesting, but I think it over-stretches itself a little, and has some unnecessary embellishments. However, it is not unreasonable to move away from the traditional narrative to fill in a backstory of intrigue, and place greater emphasis on female characters. It is, after all, not Hamlet the play but Ophelia the film. And it is a pretty difficult task to partially rewrite Hamlet and hope for an improvement. In any event, it is a fair story in its own right. The script is good enough to invest in the characters completely. Owen’s Claudius is menacing but not unlike some modern day scheming bastard. Felton’s Laertes comes alive like a real person pulsating with emotion and grief, and Watts’ Gertrude is nuanced, complex and human. Though there are some elements of the script / narrative that almost venture into dark fairy-tale territory, its strengths can be seen in how the classic narrative is turned on its head, showing a different view of the world. Ophelia, water-drenched in a lake in a swirl of reeds and flowers, might well ruminate as she opens her eyes to tell her story: ‘To be or not to be’. I like that in this story some well-known slices of Shakespearean dialogue or actions are inverted, taking on different, perhaps more modern, interpretations.

It’s a good film, colourful and ornate and beautiful, convincing performances from a good cast of actors, with a fast-paced script – occasionally a bit out there – but always enjoyable.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 3.5/5

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Midsommar (2019, A24 and Nordisk Film)
Written and directed by Ari Aster. Featuring Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor, Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter.

Midsommar is an Swedish-American psychedelic horror film set within a secretive commune in central Sweden. This is Ari Aster’s second feature film (he also made some shorts), following on from last year’s very successful Hereditary, also a horror film (reviewed here). Aster is both writer and director; and early indications are that this film will also be very successful at the box office (almost quadrupled the cost in profits already) and in receiving critical acclaim.

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Dani (Pugh), her boyfriend Christian (Reynor), and his mates – all post-graduate students – decide to fly to Sweden and stay for a month at a secretive but tranquil commune of Hårga people. The Hårga seem pleasant, if a bit disconnected. They wear white, the women have flowers in their hair, and they appear to subsist without working, apart from baking bread and picking flowers. It’s a seemingly idyllic lifestyle wrapped up in a religious mysticism and some communal meditations, perpetuated by a love of the sun and nature. So far, so old-world pagan. We learn that they are in tune with a cycle of life that honours life and death in equal measure. Some rituals are a little odd and confronting. And then some of the friends leave unexpectedly in the night without telling anyone, and soon it is apparent that something weird is going on. Sound familiar? And isn’t it strange that there are very few children or young men at the commune, but lots of young virginal women and old people with white hair?

The narrative is more or less lifted from 1960s and 1970s B-grade Hammer Horror films. You know the ones: where a young couple or group of friends go into the forest somewhere and come across a community practising love and dancing in the fields, but oh no! They are really preparing a human sacrifice for the unsuspecting visitors! And there’s candles, lots of candles. This film, like his previous film Hereditary, is a series of horror-film clichés but on steroids. It is so desperate to make it look like something creepy is happening. But in the end the narrative is entirely predictable, sometimes idiotic and just sheer dull. Eventually, after all the pointless scenes of self-love, tranquillity and flower-picking, something happens. When it does, there is a relief that the end of the film is just a little bit closer (well, for me anyway).

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Aster tries hard, I think, to have a naturalistic everyday feel to the dialogue and to the scenes, but it just doesn’t get there. Performances are passable, but nothing stands out. I think that with a better script some of the young actors might have had scope to do a better job. Editing is not great but mostly not awful. Elsewhere it is fine. The musical score is generally awful, loud and over-bearing. It is inserted into some ‘non-scenes’ (and there’s plenty of them) to let the audience know that eventually something might happen. Cinematography is okay. It varies from a few nice shots to some rather ordinary shots, with more than one scene over-exposed in the sun. There is a seven to ten second shot where the camera goes upside-down that I liked. In fact those seconds are the only part of the film that I actually liked!

Is there anything at all worthwhile in this pseudo-horror flick? Maybe one or two short scenes using special effects – a bit gruesome but genuine. If you have to watch this film, buy the DVD, turn the sound down and add your own dialogue!

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 1.5/5

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