Strip the poetry out of “Hamlet,” and the soliloquies.
Retell the tale from a tragic character’s point of view.
Yes, it’s been done before. And Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” had more zing to it than “Ophelia,” Clare McCarthy’s film version of the Lisa Klein novel.
But sumptuous settings, a good cast and some clever if not exactly genius back-engineering and re-imagining make this bastardized Bard at least worth a look.
It gives us the chance to see if Daisy Ridley’s “Star Wars” grimace is her go-to move, and lets us reconsider Queen Gertrude’s culpability and ponder the mechanics of Shakespeare’s play by rearranging them in a single exercise in changing the focus.
Ridley has the title role, seen in the opening as we remember her, lovely, pale and drowned in a pond.
But “I was always a willful girl, who followed my heart and spoke my mind.”
Ophelia grew up in Helsingør, a commoner who lost her mother early but was raised to be a lady in waiting for Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). She never lost the urge to be outdoors and on her own, never shed her fondness for dips in the pond.
The Mean Girls of Court keep her in her place — “She smells of garden soil…Ophelia, you dance like a goat.”
But doting on the queen, running secret errands and interpreting Medieval tapestries, she becomes the favorite. Fret not about the Mean Girls, the Queen counsels.
“Have you seen how the hens in the yard peck at each other?”
Standing in the shadows, sneaking into banquets, overhearing confidences, Ophelia hears much and sees much, before and after she falls under the gaze of Prince Hamlet (George MacKay).
She hears the first come-on Claudius aims at Gertrude — “In law, I am your brother. I was never much for law.”
What Ophelia knows and hears will come in handy. Eventually.
Claudius (Clive Owen) is the long-haired brother to the king, the life of the party, given to insulting the heir to the throne (the “Prince of Denmark”).
“To the prince, may he someday rise from his mother’s lap.”
Hamlet first spies the pale but fiery Ophelia having one of her dips. Their banter is clever if not witty enough to quote at length.
“Beauty turns men to beasts.”
“You are a lady in waiting. Learn to ‘wait.'”
“A husband, of course.”
Australian director Claire McCarthy (“The Waiting City”) delivers us to the familiar plot points and action beats in a Middle Ages of stone and steel, wood and leather, garlands and brocade with white peacocks wandering the courtyard of these gorgeous Czech locations. Courtiers like Ophelia’s dad Polonius (Dominic Mafham) and brother Laertes (Tom Felton, a stand-out in this cast) haunt the interiors.
This Ophelia is the first to see the ghost on the battlements, and no delicate flower submitting to Hamlet’s flirting.
“Do not play with me.”
Still, she ignores Laertes’ heartfelt warning — “Ophelia, be afraid, afraid of all he can take from you!”
There’s a tin-eared recreation of the father-son “Neither a borrower nor lender be” lecture that Polonius gives Laertes, with lots of familiar action staged here offstage. The origins of Hamlet’s plan to be “mad North-northwest” (faking it), Ophelia’s ulterior motives and the poison brewing witch (Watts, again) never seen in the play have their day.
The swordfights are properly fraught, and every so often a lovely line makes its way into generally pedestrian dialogue.
“You’re a very bad girl, to be so good.”
To Horatio (Deven Terrell), who has just expressed the desire to become a doctor.
“I have no interest in becoming some man’s anatomy lesson.”
And director McCarthy stages a red shadow pantomime that’s the best filmed version of “the play within a play.” Ever.
Every new pale English rose of the theater or cinema wants her shot at playing Shakespearean women, and Ridley makes this re-interpretation of the character confident but unpolished, and unlike Mr. “To be, or not to be” is decisive. It’s a reassuring if not career-making performance, as I’ve been underwhelmed by her work “a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.”
I can’t say this was dazzling, as it goes rather wrong here and there, and completely off the rails in the epilogue. And MacKay, last seen in the WWII misfire “Where Hand’s Touch,” seems representative of a generation of skilled but colorless British leading men (Taron Egerton is their poster lad).
But when Hamlet, feigning madness, tries one last time to warn his beloved, Ridley’s “Ophelia” is assertive and fascinating enough that we’re glad she ignored that demand.
“I told you to get to a nunnery!”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for a scene of violence/bloody images, some sensuality, and thematic elements
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Naomi Watts, George Mackay, Tom Felton and Clive Owen
Credits: Directed by Claire McCarthy, script by Semi Challas, based on a novel by Lisa Klein . An IFC release.
Running time: 1:46