Review: 'Cymbeline' is a bizarre take on one of Shakespeare's least liked plays
The director of the very amusing Ethan Hawke-starring "Hamlet" tries for something different but similar with a truly plotty play.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris
3 (out of 5) Globes
For awhile the new film of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” was called “Anarchy,” which seems cruel: The last time the play was staged for the screen in English was in 1982, in a for-TV mounting with Helen Mirren. It’s neither one of Shakespeare’s most seen nor his most liked — a plotty not-quite-tragedy whose complex happenings would be easier to parse if the play were more widely seen. Even a simple synopsis tends to run a giant paragraph, with so many twists and characters and competing agendas that following it can be impossible, especially considering half the play has been hacked off. Perhaps “Anarchy” was the better title after all.
To its credit, the film itself seems aware of how unwieldy “Cymbeline” is to translate, even if had taken the straight adaptation route. Instead it reworks its tale of warring kingdoms into a tale of warring gangs, “Sons of Anarchy”-style. Cymbeline, the king of Britain, becomes the head of a biker outfit (and played by Ed Harris), though he’s still enraged that his daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson, pre-“Fifty Shades” brunette dye job), has secretly wed a lowly outsider, nice Posthumous (Penn Badgley). Very long, convoluted story short, this leads to an escalating bloodbath, one that barely makes room for its own vengeful queen (Milla Jovovich), much less its star-crossed lovers.
At times the messiness of the plot — which also includes two hidden brothers, a ghostly father (Bill Pullman), a nasty jilted suitor (Anton Yelchin) and, later on, some cross-dressing — seems like one of the film’s jokes. This is semi-experimental director Michael Almereyda’s second concept-heavy Shakespeare stab, the last being 2000’s modernized and corporatized “Hamlet,” also featuring Ethan Hawke. (The actor takes on a smaller role as a skeezy member of Posthumous’ posse.) He likes jokes, even in one of drama’s most anguished tragedies; the most famous part of his “Hamlet” sets the “To be or not to be” soliloquy in Blockbuster Video, our stalled hero strolling past the words “action.” The ones here are less inspired; not tricking out characters with Apple products would have probably been funnier than having them shooting iambic pentameter over text.
But there is something engaging, amusing even, about the desolate urban landscapes — all creaking warehouses and rumpled row homes, as though all other life had emptied, allowing those who stayed to turn crazy. They’re working through old, dead codes — not just Shakespeare but biker warfare. (In fact, one of Harris’ first roles, as it were, was in George A. Romero’s “Knightriders,” in which bikers re-enact King Arthur’s court, somewhat like what’s going on here.) It’s a time warp of bygone eras: Shakespeare, biker movies, ’80s movies (with an opening credits sequence out of a Nicolas Winding Refn film), even modernized Shakespeare films themselves. (“Cymbeline” counts two vets of Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet”: John Leguizamo and Vondie Curtis Hall.) It’s a film that seems purposefully wish-washy, existing in an in-between space, with some actors intense (Harris), some dazed (Badgley) and some deeply and touchingly sincere (Johnson). It could even be read, if one was stretching, as a critique of Shakespeare, and even of modernizations like this: the Bard isn’t always great, and you can’t solve the problem by giving him an iPhone.