Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, Dakota Johnson, Penn Badgley, Anton Yelchin, Ed Harris, John Leguizamo, Delroy Lindo, Bill Pullman
Runtime: 1 hr 39 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Violence)
Released By: Shaw
Opening Day: 30 April 2015
Synopsis: An epic battle between dirty cops and a drug dealing biker gang set in a corruption-riddled 21st century America.
Like he did with Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ more than a decade ago, writer-director Michael Almereyda takes what has been regarded as one of the Bard’s plottiest plays and stages it in a modern contemporary setting. So for anyone familiar with the text, King Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is now the leader of the Briton motorcycle gang in a scrappy American town, refusing to bow down to the local police chief a la Roman tax collector Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), thereby setting in motion a confrontation that will shatter the years of peace between them. And yet, the politics is really just second-fiddle to the romantic intrigues and family in-fighting that King Cymbeline has to contend with.
Displeased that his daughter from his first marriage Imogen (Dakota Johnson) has fallen for the handsome but penniless Posthumus (Penn Badgley), Cymbeline banishes the latter and grounds the former. Unbeknownst to him, his second and current wife, the Queen (Milla Jovovich), is scheming to secure her claim to the throne by hitching her son from a former marriage, Cloten (Anton Yelchin) to Imogen. Upon his banishment, Posthumus crosses paths with the duplicitous Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), who wagers that he can seduce Imogen and eventually tricks the former into thinking that he had done so by using his iPhone to take a selfie with her.
All that plot machinations may have seemed right at home on the Bard’s page, but even with a significant degree of paring down, Almereyda’s modern-day update seems too over-plotted for its own good. With so many characters and so many character motivations to flesh out, Almereyda stumbles trying to translate the Bard’s nominal setting in Roman Britain around the time of Christ to an unnamed post-industrial town with gangs, turf wars, automatic weapons and iPads. Notwithstanding the ill-fitting mise-en-scene, there isn’t much dramatic heft left in any of the characters as Almereyda flits from one to the other in order to stay as faithful as he can to the classic text.
And so, one doesn’t quite sense the tussle between Cymbeline and the law enforcement officials who show up only in a few scenes threatening the rule of the former’s authority. Neither do we comprehend why Posthumus, as dedicated as he is to Imogen, would agree to Iachimo’s challenge, or for that matter, what Iachimo’s intentions are challenging Posthumus in that way, especially since that would only court Cymbeline’s ire. What to make of Cloten, who pines so overwhelmingly for his half-sister that he masturbates in her bed? What too to make of Imogen herself, who after surviving an assassination attempt goes into hiding by drinking a sleep potion that puts her in temporary death and later on passes herself incognito as a boy?
Amidst the very literal translations of Shakespeare’s situations into this contempo refresh, there is no doubt that it demands a complete suspension of disbelief. But even if it is meant to be appreciated as a pure work of fiction, Almereyda’s decision to retain the Bard’s original dialogue is completely alienating. Not only does it serve to reinforce how anachronistic the contemporary setting is, it also underlines how stagey the entire enterprise is, as if what we are really watching is a theatrical performance acted out against real-world backdrops. The fact that the story shifts tone mercurially only makes it even more frustrating, difficult as the film is to keep up from being a tragedy at the start and almost a dark comedy by its end.
It is understandable therefore that the acting is just as uneven. Hawke, who was the titular lead in Almereyda’s ‘Hamlet’, manages the few lines he has nicely. Ditto for Harris, who also brings much needed gravitas to this challenging – and challenged – drama. Unfortunately, the rest of Almereyda’s cast are literally lost in translation. Jovovich seems woefully miscast as the equivalent of the evil queen, and for that matter, Badgley and Yelchin are just as flat. Johnson, hot off her audacious turn in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, is an attractive ingénue here, but she cannot quite find the emotional core of her character.
As slick as the ensemble Almereyda has assembled may read, ‘Cymbeline’ is ultimately a slapdash attempt at transplanting the Bard’s complex blend of court treachery, family tragedy and swoonsome romance to a modern-day setting complete with dialogue intact. It isn’t that we have to sit through one-and-a-half hours of Shakespearean English uttered by characters dressed in motorcycle jackets or tank-tops, but rather how stodgy the proceedings are from Almereyda’s blind fidelity to his source material. Besides being straight-out boring, it is also frustratingly opaque in plot and character, and if those two things mean anything to you, then stay far away from ‘Cymbeline’.
(As ill-fitting as seeing a dude in a motorcycle jacket speak Shakespearean English, this contempo refresh of the Bard’s titular text is stagey, dull and flat-out boring)
Review by Gabriel Chong