Shakespeare’s heroine Ophelia is known for two things: madness and death. Her drowned body floating in the water shrouded by flowers and hair in the John Millais painting at Tate Britain is the image that probably sticks in your mind. From this picture, director Claire McCarthy launches her revision of ‘Hamlet’, based on Lisa Klein’s 2006 novel, baiting us with a familiar Ophelia before revealing a headstrong young woman more akin to Rey from ‘Star Wars’ than the Bard’s passive victim of yore.
And guess what? It’s Daisy Ridley playing the ill-fated noblewoman, furthering the parallel by injecting plenty of her trademark tomboy energy into Ophelia’s position as lady-in-waiting to Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts). She is a bustling, spirited force, stomping from courtly duties to covert dates with Hamlet (George MacKay); from lessons with a forest-dwelling herbalist Mechtild (Watts again) to family powwows with brother Laertes (Tom Felton) and father Polonius (Dominic Mafham). Performances are solid across the board, with the cast wise to the fact that Shakespearean language requires no decoration.
There is sport to be had in ringing the revisions, which include: a timeline that begins before Claudius (Clive Owen) poisons Hamlet’s father (the starting point of the play); the invention of Mechtild; and the insertion of Ophelia into most plot mechanics. It’s a shame that these bold story changes are the height of the film’s ambitions. There is a dutiful conservatism to the way it plods along, relying a bit too heavily on its unique hook – and heroine – to put the spring in its step.