“I was always a willful girl and always spoke my mind. It is high time I told you my story for myself.” So speaketh Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) at the start of “Ophelia,” a sumptuous but strained reimagining of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet” from the point of view of the play’s least-explored character.
Ophelia appears to be floating dead and pre-Raphaelite in a pond when she says this via voice-over, like some oddball fusion of the classic Millais painting and the opening of “Sunset Boulevard.” As adapted by Semi Chellas from Lisa Klein’s 2006 young-adult novel and directed by Claire McCarthy, “Ophelia” is a lavishly visualized big-budget story that aims to rehabilitate its heroine along 21st-century lines of agency and empowerment — to give Laertes’s sister and Polonius’s daughter a narrative and a dramatic stake of her own.
Neat idea, and if Tom Stoppard could get a play out of those extras Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, then Ophelia definitely deserves her turn in the spotlight. What sinks the movie (rather than the character) are the tortured melodramatics of its backstage plot and dialogue that aims for clever — and sometimes is — but that generally approximates Shakespeare for, like, beginners.
Nor does Ridley, so appealing as Rey in the recent ”Star Wars” movies, get a chance to do more than set her jaw in stubbornness at the hidebound conventions of 14th-century Denmark, where women aren’t supposed to know how to read and where the best a smart, headstrong young woman can hope for is to be chosen as a lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). The queen is vain, insecure, and given to reading hot medieval bodice-rippers, so she’s an easy target for Claudius (Clive Owen, in a wig that’s just a damn shame), the scheming brother of her husband, the King (Nathaniel Parker).
The most fully felt scenes involve Ophelia’s hard-headed response to the wooings of lovestruck Hamlet (a pallid George MacKay) — she falls, but slowly — and you can almost see the hothouse make-out masterpiece this might have been, along the lines of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.” But then Claudius kills his brother and marries Gertrude (which you knew) and Gertrude has this identical twin sister named Mechtild who lives in the woods and practices magick (which you didn’t), and the drama of Hamlet’s existential inaction takes a back seat to how the young lovers will manage to get away.
Hamlet has this need to avenge his father’s death, see, and Ophelia is about to be married off by her social-climbing father (Dominic Mafham) to evil Edmund (Sebastian De Souza), who wasn’t in the play, and a lot of things that happen onstage in Shakespeare — Polonius’s stabbing, for one — happen offstage here. The decision to retool Shakespeare’s dialogue into sorta-Shakespearean fancy talk doesn’t always work — Polonius to the departing Laertes (Tom Felton): “Don’t borrow any money or lend it. . . . Above all — be true to yourself” — and who knew that “Get thee to a nunnery” was Hamlet’s secret instructions for saving Ophelia?
“Ophelia” debuted at Sundance 2018 and has gone unreleased for a year and a half, never a good sign. The reasons are apparent. The film’s acting is either overripe (Owen, Watts) or undercooked (MacKay), and Ridley herself only lets loose when feigning madness in the climactic scenes. She gives a tightly controlled performance in a movie that’s handsome to look at, fundamentally silly, yet not quite silly enough to take on a life of its own. There’s too much method in this “Ophelia” and not nearly enough madness.
Directed by Claire McCarthy. Written by Semi Chellas, based on the novel by Lisa Klein. Starring Daisy Ridley, George MacKay, Naomi Watts, Clive Owen. At West Newton. 116 minutes. PG-13 (a scene of violence/bloody images, some sexuality, and thematic elements)Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.