Shakespeare and biker gangs make strange bedfellows in the low-stakes, fitfully interesting 'Cymbeline'
Director: Michael Almereyda
Screenplay: Michael Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Penn Badgley, Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Anton Yelchin, Milla Jovovich, Vondie Curtis-Hall, James Ransone, Delroy Lindo and John Leguizamo
Rated R / 1 hour, 38 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
There's lowering the stakes of an existing story, and then there's Michael Almereyda's Cymbeline.
In transplanting the Shakespearean tragedy from Ancient Britain to modern suburban streets, he made the title character the king of ... wait for it ... a motorcycle club.
A MOTORCYCLE CLUB.
Well, to be fair, a motorcycle club that doubles as a front for a drug racket. But still. Pretty minor, all things considered. Not only has Cymbeline (Ed Harris) been reduced to being a small-time kingpin (as opposed to the king of Britain), but in the role of his chief adversary, the Romans have been replaced by ... the local cops.
I'm going to assume this is an unintended effect, but I couldn't help but think its modest scale was proportionately appropriate for a relatively minor entry in the Bard's canon. I mean, surely in comparison with Almereyda's previous Shakespeare film, 2000's terrific Ethan Hawke-led Hamlet - in which the "kingdom" was no less than global capitalism incarnate - something like Cymbeline may seem like more of a fit as a small-scale crime drama. Problem is, while the use of the original text in Hamlet enhanced and revitalized the drama that unfolded, the same approach only makes Cymbeline look silly. When straight-faced characters are referring to themselves as "King" and "Queen" (Milla Jovovich) while living in an average home in an average suburban neighborhood, the whole thing tends to come across as little more than play-acting. A bit like Joss Whedon's charming Much Ado About Nothing, but without the joy, levity and general disregard for the modern setting.
But to backtrack a bit, it's Almereyda's own previous work that serves as the best counterpoint. There's a big difference between actual modernization, and simply placing an old story in a modern setting. This movie is distinctly in the latter category. Its attempts to "modernize" details of the story are often laughably perfunctory, whereas Hamlet wove modern aesthetics, politics and technology directly into the fabric of its drama. In Cymbeline, the Queen vapes and wears a tiara. Travelers consult Google Maps before departing. Instead of bearing witness upon their return, they swipe through photos on their iPads.
In some cases, there are confoundingly unnecessary attempts to reference modern culture. When Imogen (Dakota Johnson) - the King's daughter whose lover Posthumus (Penn Badgley) has been exiled - goes into hiding as a boy, she chooses the name Fidele. And she does so - get this - by glancing around a room until locking in on another character's Che Guevara T-shirt and drawing the Castro connection. But why? Why inject a cursory explanation for a name that already has explicit meaning? It's the type of scene you'd expect to see in a sitcom, not an epic tragedy. (If this were done with an effective sense of humor, I'd appreciate it more. But it isn't.)
What made Hamlet work so well was a perfect synergy of the original material and the modern setting, which substituted the elective monarchy of Denmark in the late middle ages with equivalent sources of political power in turn-of-the-century America. What was remarkable about Almereyda's filmmaking was how he found ways to make both the era and filmmaking itself essential to the telling of the story - the emphasis on glass and reflective surfaces to create physical and emotional distance, the use of vertical space (characters shot from low angles against the towering New York skyline, conversations taking place from between levels at the Guggenheim) and most blatantly, the translation of Hamlet's hand-wringing monologues into a personal, confessional video diary, an extension of his experiments as a student filmmaker. It all blended so well, technologically and cinematically.
Naturally, in taking on Shakespeare once again, Almereyda wouldn't have wanted to simply repeat the same idea. No need for Cymbeline to be the king of any corporation. But what he came up with this time is not really a modernization at all. It's a retelling in modern clothing; the whole exercise feels like a giant affectation.
Which is not to say it's without merit. The material alone lends itself quite nicely at times; even second-rate Shakespeare offers more than its share of intrigue and wit. Almereyda once again shows an innate ability to create mood through music and editing, which he makes particularly great use of early on as he sets up the various pieces of the narrative through early glimpses of the third act and a pulsating electronic score. The performances are up and down, with Hawke once again a standout, this time as Iachimo, the scoundrel who wagers with Posthumus against Imogen's honor. I also quite liked Vondie Curtis-Hall's quiet nobility as Caius Lucius, who in this version is the local chief of police.
But as clever as the plotting is and as enjoyable as it always is to hear these words when spoken well, Cymbeline never forges a 21st Century identity. Constantly referencing modern pop culture is no substitute. And the film also does nothing to improve the play's messy, clunky, perfunctorily explained climax. All's not well that doesn't end well.