If you can appreciate a movie that swings for the fences, even if it doesn’t always knock it out of the park, director Claire McCarthy’s female-fueled take on William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Ophelia,” might be for you.
“Star Wars” jedi-in-training Daisy Ridley plays the title role, written by Shakespeare as a delicate flower who goes mad when Hamlet uses her in his game of revenge. But in McCarthy’s version, scripted by Semi Chellas (a writer and producer on “Mad Men”) and based on Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel, Ophelia is not mad — north-northwest or any other direction.
“I was always a willful child,” Ophelia tells us in voice-over, before we see her as a child (played by Mia Quiney) sneaking into the court at Elsinore. She’s soon taken under the wing of Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), to be trained as a lady in waiting. She grows into womanhood, and attracts the attention of the prince, Hamlet (George MacKay), and there are romantic sparks. A marriage would be forbidden, because Ophelia, as the daughter of the king’s advisor Polonius (Dominic Mafham), is not a member of nobility.
When Hamlet goes to Wittenberg for his studies, tragedy strikes the castle with the sudden death of the king. The king’s brother, Claudius (Clive Owen), quickly weds Gertrude — but Ophelia knows there’s nothing sudden about it, because she spotted them at the start of their affair. It’s Ophelia, not a ghost, who tells Hamlet that Claudius poisoned his father.
When her brother Laertes (Tom Felton) warns her Claudius might take her head, Ophelia and Hamlet devise a plan to escape Elsinore, whispering the details while Hamlet shouts nonsense to make the others think the Danish cheese has slipped off his cracker.
The revised story borrows a plot point from “Romeo & Juliet,” by adding an apothecary, exiled deep in the woods. The character, Mechtild, provides Gertrude her regular tonic to get her through the day, and as their go-between, Ophelia learns the connection between the two women. (Hint: Mechtild is also played by Naomi Watts.)
McCarthy finds a colorful feast as Ophelia darts between the floral beauty outside — flowers, of course, being a centerpiece of Ophelia’s doomed character — and the finery of court life. The most stunning moment may be the play within a play, a beautifully photographed and choreographed shadow play that all Shakespearean stage directors should study.
The liberties taken with Shakespeare’s story are fascinating, as the women become chess players rather than pawns, even if the rewritten storyline doesn’t hold together. McCarthy’s sharpest weapon here is Ridley, who captures Ophelia’s vulnerability and the steel that emerges when lives are on the line.
“Ophelia” may not match the greatest “Hamlet” spinoff, Tom Stoppard’s acerbic comedy “Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” but the women behind the story — McCarthy, Chellas, Klein, Watts and especially Ridley — certainly strive to catch the conscience of the title character.
Opens Friday, June 28, in select theaters. Rated PG-13 for a scene of violence/bloody images, some sensuality, and thematic elements. Running time: 106 minutes.