To be or not to be? That is not the question in "Ophelia."
Hamlet is little more than an accessory, and his famous soliloquy doesn't even come up in the drama, which rejiggers the story from William Shakespeare's classic play to put Hamlet's squeeze, unpredictable Ophelia, at the center. As played by Daisy Ridley ("Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens"), Ophelia is a smart, principled person who is horrified by the treachery that surrounds her, particularly the king (Clive Owen) and queen (Naomi Watts), who are united by murder and betrayal, not love or honor. In "Hamlet," that perfidy makes her crazy but in "Ophelia," it makes her angry.
Based on Lisa Klein's novel and incorporating only snippets of Shakespeare's dialogue, the movie nods to many of the events from "Hamlet," although most of them happen off-screen. It's more interested in creating a new narrative for its title character. Instead of drowning herself in a lake, Ophelia tries to do something about the pointless bickering at court by joining both Queen Gertrude and Gertrude's warrior-like sister, Mechtild, in what amounts to a precursor of that C200 group of female leaders. She also takes a sec to decide if she's really in love with Hamlet.
Theoretically, that's a swell idea, but one problem with the movie is that Ridley's not very compelling. Even with the rewrites, Ophelia seems resistant to living at the center of the story, perhaps because the usually proficient Ridley doesn't bring much to the table. The good news is that everything around Ridley helps make up for her blahness, starting with Owen's hilariously vain King Claudius, a dopey blusterer who's impossible to take seriously because he comes off like he's one table-flip away from his own reality TV series.
Australian director Claire McCarthy creates a dark, dread-filled atmosphere, with flashes of (very Shakespearean) mysticism to hint that the characters we're watching know almost nothing about how the world works — and that so much has been set in motion by the time the movie begins that they may not be able to change how things play out. Unless, that is, Gertrude has her way.
Watts is the real star, her intelligence and calm creating new insight into one of the least-explicable characters in the Shakespeare canon. This Gertrude makes the best of a bad situation and makes this 14th-century tale feel almost modern. Stop me if you've heard this, but women didn't have a lot of options in medieval Denmark, even women who were sitting on the throne, and Watts conveys the frustration and pragmatism that might lead Gertrude to make choices that help her: a) survive and b) try to make her country a better place for future generations of women.