“It is high time I shall tell you my story myself,” announces Daisy Ridley in the voiceover that opens “Ophelia,” Claire McCarthy’s sympathetic “Hamlet” recalibration, based on the novel by Lisa Klein. Fair point. Actors have been performing Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy for over 400 years, and four centuries is a lot of time for a girl to go crazy and die without getting to explain her take on things.
To most artists, Ophelia is a lovelorn pawn in the middle of a deadly pentagram between her father, her brother, her Queen, her King, and her boyfriend, all pointing swords at each other’s throats. She’s the long-haired beauty doomed to drown with a fistful of flowers. But to McCarthy and screenwriter Semi Chellas, the legendary lunatic is the only sane one in the script. They stitch woolly new plot threads about feminism and snobbery into Shakespeare’s framework — when Hamlet mutters “To be or not to be,” the camera’s in the corner with her not paying attention.
The likable stunt doesn’t ask much of leading lady Ridley, who’s still exploring her career outside of “Star Wars.” Here, she once again visits a hermit’s sacred cave. Yet, she happily leaves the sword fighting to the men, and among the film’s playful ideas, the image that lasts is of sensible Ophelia and her unhinged boyfriend marching in sync across the screen, one ready to leave this world, and the other willing to kill to reclaim it.
“Ophelia” picks up six years before Hamlet spots his father’s ghost. The young girl is even younger, a dirty-faced urchin (Mia Quiney) who sneaks into a royal banquet and interrupts a conversation about temptation in the Bible with her own interpretation. “I think the apple was quite innocent in the matter,” the 10-year-old girl declares. Her social climbing father Polonius (Dominic Mafham) cringes. Hamlet (Jack Cunningham-Nuttall), a cute kid on his way to boarding school, is oblivious. But his mother Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) is intrigued. She swoops the motherless tomboy into her clique of ladies-in-waiting, a job that mostly entails braiding one’s hair, flattering the queen’s ego, and dodging the insults of a posh mean girl (Daisy Head) who sneers that this low-born intruder dances like a goat.
This narrative flashback lets McCarthy expand Gertrude’s character, too. Watts plays the queen as a vain and shallow diva who bursts into tears when someone calls her old. At night, she reads erotica about faces flush with ecstasy. During the day, she’s simply bored. Maybe her son thinks of his father as a martyred hero, but when we see him alive, he’s just a bearded oaf draining the romance from the Queen’s life.
No wonder she’s vulnerable to her handsome brother-in-law Claudius’ (Clive Owen) flirtation, especially when he pins her in a turret and whispers, “In law, I am your brother — but I’ve never much loved the law.” And in a dual role, Watts also plays Gertrude’s newly invented older sister Mechtild, the local witch who supplies the castle with poisons and questionable advice.
Once Ophelia blossoms into the full-grown, fabulously bewigged Ridley — every woman in the film has a fantastical My Little Pony mane that drapes to their hips — Hamlet returns, catches her swimming in the ill-fated pond, and promptly falls in lust. George MacKay’s adult Hamlet is a bro with a Caesar haircut who practically high-fives Horatio (Devon Terrell) for their luck in getting a glimpse of this gorgeous bathing girl. As the film charges on, this Hamlet doesn’t get smarter, but he does start to cake on the eyeliner. There’s a swoony ballroom scene where he woos the reluctant virgin while she’s armored with a spiky gold metal headpiece stamped with flowers and two fist-sized smudges of blue glitter eyeshadow. Later, the lovers embrace in a field of daisies, bodies curled together like a Klimt.
After a stretch of duly naturalistic (i.e. filthy and dim) period pictures, it’s nice to see a design team have some fun. Bouquets fill every room, giant candelabras covered in human skulls give a ghoulish cast to the chapel. Outside in nature, where Ophelia looks happiest, the grass is a saturated green, and in a pair of stunning time lapses, the sky ripples from lime to yellow, and then a few beats later reappears as a midnight black with a backlit monster-shaped cloud that threatens to swallow the moon. When Watts strolls through a parapet, there’s an albino peacock for no reason at all.
Ophelia and Hamlet’s rewritten romance cribs from “Romeo and Juliet.” One of the biggest plot expansions is a secret marriage, which adds context to why the stakes of their affair were so high. Some rejiggered scenes make less sense than they did before, like the “get-thee-to-a-nunnery” break-up where the couple loudly insults each other for the spies who might be watching, while whispering the truth so obviously they might as well scream that, too. But the larger argument that Ophelia was a feminist heroine is an easier sell. Even Shakespeare included a line where she rebuffs her brother Laertes’ (Tom Felton) prudish dating advice by noting a boy like him is allowed to be “a puffed and reckless libertine.”
The best part of Ridley’s performance is her plodding, heavy-footed walk that reminds us this well-groomed lady is still a stubborn child underneath her fancy dress. She has a blank, open face that absorbs the court’s machinations and reflects little back until she decides to act insane. Ridley looks the part—she’s a dead-ringer for John Everett Millais’ classic portrait of Ophelia, and in one scene, even clutches the same flowers. But she comes across a bit too passive for the script’s stronger, bolder feminist. Instead, at the very end, the script scraps its attempts to preserve the bones of Shakespeare’s story of machismo gone amok and bluntly rewrites the bloody climax. That sound you hear is cordial applause, and the riffling of an audience paging through their high-school-English-class paperbacks to double-check the facts.