The freshest element of director Michael Almereyda’s contemporary gadget filled film adaptation of a lesser William Shakespeare play, Cymbeline is not reimagining the struggle between the Britons and the Romans as a feud between Los Angeles bikers and dirty cops, or the use of mobile technology to explain plot points. Rather it is the casting of a pre-50 Shades of Grey Dakota Johnson in the pivotal role of Imogen. She is the daughter of biker chief Cymbeline (Ed Harris) who prevents her in an early scene from associating with Posthumus (Penn Badgley), a skateboarding wastrel raised by her father as a playmate for her – but not that kind of a playmate.
Posthumus enters into a $10,000 wager with Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) that Imogen is chaste and would not consort with another. I have no idea if Posthumus needs the money but what he appears to want is an excuse to renounce his forbidden love. But there is worse for Imogen in the offering. Her half-brother, Cloten (Anton Yelchin) is quite taken with her, and wishes her to be his. Meanwhile, Iachimo rocks up at chez Imogen, makes overtures to her, but then says he is just testing her love. Well, that’s all right then. Now he would like to keep some of his stuff at her house for one night – would that be okay? Sure, says Imogen, apparently charmed by someone who believes in her love for Posthumus. She doesn’t expect Iachimo to pop out of a box and steal her bracelet, as proof that she has slept with him. Nor that he would take pictures of her with his i-Pad. You half expect them to be leaked on the internet.
There is a certain point in reviewing a film when you should discretely stop telling the story. But who goes to a Shakespeare play – or even a film adaptation of one – for the plot? Doesn’t everyone know how Romeo and Juliet ends? Do audiences really wonder if Hamlet will just get used to the fact that his dad has died and his mother has married his uncle and just finish his degree in Wittenburg already? No, why they go is to make sense of a story that they already know, to see how it is enhanced by its latest incarnation, to enjoy the performances of a cast angling for new laughs, different line readings, or in the case of Ingmar Bergman’s stage adaptation of Hamlet, tanks smashing through onto the stage in the final scene.
I haven’t read Cymbeline, but watching the film, I got the impression that Almereyda wasn’t that interested in Shakespeare’s critique of ‘father knows best’. What he gives us is an extended homage to Baz Luhrmann’s film William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, right down to the use of guns and John Leguizamo (Sid the Sloth from the Ice Age movies) in a supporting role.
Cymbeline really plays as an inferior version of R & J. There are warring factions, forbidden love, poison, two characters mistaken for dead, real bloodshed, and a doctor who really ought to be struck off. What Cymbeline lacks is a romantic setting. It might have Romans, but it ain’t no Roman Holiday! There’s no Trevi fountain here.
Cymbeline also has elements of other Shakespeare plays – sons separated from their father and a rather nasty Queen (here played by Milla Jovovich, who sings but isn’t that bad).
Almereyda’s film falters because it gives undue emphasis to Iachimo, who is an Iago type figure acting for reasons that we never fully understand – he doesn’t really want Posthumus’ ring, the only thing the kid has to wager, and he isn’t in love with Imogen. Towards the end, Iachimo is a good guy. He picks up Posthumus after he is released from custody and ends up in a mostly off-screen gun battle.
Almereyda is not a big fan of Iambic pentameter. Cymbeline doesn’t have any great speeches or set pieces. It does however have references to Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire. Imogen ends up there and pretends to be a boy – another thing big in Shakespeare - climbing through a window like a latter day Goldilocks, surprised by three bears, played by Delroy Lindo and a couple of young actors. The boys are instructed to play nice.
Credibility is stretched when a character is buried alive under real slate that is thrown on top of the body. Having emerged from this interment, the individual has no bruises. I don’t mind the mix of Shakespearean dialogue and modern settings but Almereyda could at least make the action coherent.
The film prompted two walkouts at the public screening I attended, at a Muscat Shopping Mall Tri-Plex. To be honest, I wondered what the two Omani gentlemen, in full dishdashas were expecting. Maybe they mistook Cymbeline for Hawke’s other new movie, Good Kill. (‘I expected drones – all I heard was droning.’) I personally think Almereyda tackled the play because nobody else had filmed it previously. Not such a great recommendation. What Almereyda preserves is the reason why it is rarely seen.
Reviewed at City Cinema Screen One, Grand Mall, Muscat, Friday 24 April 2015, 14:05 screening; rated ‘suitable for 12 years and upwards for an unconvincing headless corpse, funny looking trinkets, misuse of a thermos and a near pointless Bill Pullman cameo’