Soon after “Ophelia” opens, the title character is floating face up in a river. The image evokes John Everett Millais’s 1850s painting that shows a supine Ophelia soon after she has drowned. Her pale palms are turned up, flowers spilling out of one hand. Her eyes are open, her lips prettily parted, as if she had received the gentlest of surprises. It’s quite a vision of Eros and Thanatos in one beautiful necrophiliac package.
“Ophelia” seeks to revamp the image of its title heroine (Daisy Ridley) as a tragic, largely passive casualty, one who is as much a victim of Shakespeare’s era as of his peerless imagination. It’s an interesting exercise and, for the most part, a passably diverting one. The movie sounds and looks good (despite the suboptimal digital resolution), though it is also too pretty, with lush woods, attractive gowns, a stately castle and misty lakes. It also isn’t remotely Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” despite the characters, the Danish setting and the self-conscious attempt to suggest his language.
This is instead Ophelia as a 21st-century heroine, who after a smudge-faced childhood running wild in her king’s castle — and being excluded from studying with the boys — grows into a woman with desires, ambitions and a pronounced rebellious streak. Yet like Shakespeare’s version, this Ophelia has serious issues, including love trouble with the still-brooding Hamlet (a good, underused George MacKay). Now, though, she has richer, more familial ties to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts) and an uneasy relationship with Gertrude’s look-alike (Watts), a witchy forest dweller who seems to have wandered in from “Macbeth.” (The script by Semi Chellas is based on Lisa Klein’s Y.A. novel.)
The director Claire McCarthy sets an energetic pace that rarely eases, as if taking her cue from the introduction of Ophelia (Mia Quiney) when she was one of the castle’s child ruffians. Once Gertrude takes Ophelia under her wing, making the motherless girl her charge, the movie retains a clip that could use some slowing. A great deal happens in “Hamlet” (“carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,” as Horatio says); just as much in “Ophelia” but not always gracefully. “You may think you know my story,” she says in the movie, which is an agreeably optimistic claim about contemporary readership. At times, though, all the bustling to and fro feels strained, superfluous.
Best known for playing a warrior in the most recent cycle of “Star Wars” movies, Ridley is an attractive, physically confident performer who has enough of that certain alchemical something — a persona that lights up the frame, an auric presence — that she can both hold the screen and your attention. Her resemblance to Keira Knightley, particularly around the jawline, has always been uncanny. In “Ophelia,” though, with its flowing hair and gowns, the resemblance is at times also awkwardly distracting because it reminds you how smoothly Knightley can slip into a period role. Ridley by contrast often seems ill at ease, particularly when called on to express interiority.
This scarcely seems Ridley’s fault and presumably neither is Ophelia’s habit of speaking in hushed Malickian tones. Even Clive Owen has a rough time delivering the persuasive goods, and the most notable aspect of his performance as Claudius, alas, is the character’s tragic hair. Other familiar critical characters scarcely register, including the king (Nathaniel Parker), who barely speaks (alive or otherwise) and whose murder of course helps instigate the play’s “accidental judgments, casual slaughters.” His diminished presence creates a dramatic problem that this movie never manages to solve, even despite Watts’s predictably lively, doubly troubled turn.
Rated PG-13 for something rotten. Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes.
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Manohla Dargis has been the co-chief film critic since 2004. She started writing about movies professionally in 1987 while earning her M.A. in cinema studies at New York University, and her work has been anthologized in several books. @ManohlaDargis • Facebook
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