As universally revered as William Shakespeare is within the English literary canon, all Michael Almereyda’s modernized Cymbeline demonstrates is that even the masters had their off-days. The centuries-old play is one of the Bard’s most contrived and convoluted works, and certainly not one that would be unanimously considered a “classic,” though simply bearing Shakespeare’s name has been enough to ensure multiple adaptations of it over the years. Almereyda’s film, disappointingly, just highlights its source material’s messier moments, never justifying its solemn tone or updated setting.
As reimagined here, Cymbeline‘s eponymous character is a drug kingpin (Ed Harris), the leader of an outlaw bike gang that rules over a burned-out town. Cymbeline’s word is law, even to the crooked cops with whom he’s embroiled in a power struggle. When his beautiful daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) quietly marries servant Posthumus (Penn Badgely), defying Cymbeline’s wishes that she marry loutish Cloten (Anton Yelchin), the son of her father’s new queen (Milla Jovovich), in order to further expand the empire, it sets in motion a deadly domino chain of events, further galvanized by the jealous and deceitful Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) betting Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen.
With so many narrative balls in the air, Cymbeline should excite, but so many of the original play’s weaker aspects have been preserved that it instead stumbles. The film is a prime example of a director being far too faithful to his source material, only dressing up a story that was in need of more than a superficial polish. Particularly within the harsh world of a biker gang, too many of the plot points register as inorganic and just plain silly, from Posthumus accepting Iachimo’s bet to a subplot about two “prince” sons of Cymbeline who were abducted from his home and raised nearby by the jilted Belarius (Delroy Lindo).
Cymbeline is also obnoxiously reliant on coincidences throughout its length, slaying any suspense long before a finale that’s so overstuffed with converging plot threads one isn’t sure how Shakespeare could have intended it as anything other than comedic. Almereyda trusts almost blindly in the Bard, but this was the wrong adaptation for him to undertake.
Almereyda fails to course-correct, instead so weighing Cymbeline down with grave line readings and gritty cinematography that it becomes a punishing slog. There’s no sense of theatre here, or even much of a sense of purpose. Ralph Fiennes’ war epic Coriolanus and Joss Whedon’s charming rom-com Much Ado About Nothing both succeeded in shifting Shakespeare plays to the modern era and still finding truth and resonance in their centuries-old dialogue. Cymbeline is a failure in that respect – even as Iachimo snaps pics of the slumbering Imogen on his trusty iPhone, or as Cloten gesticulates wildly at a Google search history while stalking Imogen, the Bard has never felt more out-of-touch or out-of-time.
For the most part, the cast manages to cope with Shakespeare’s slightly pared-down wordplay. Hawke, who was Almereyda’s partner in crime on 2000’s Hamlet, perhaps fares the best, bringing a sprightly wit to the role of a villainous cad. Harris, too, makes full use of his expressive eyes, truly selling the cold brutality of a modern king, and Johnson and Badgely make for an appealingly emotive pair of star-crossed lovers. Jovovich, as Cymbeline’s villainous queen, is underused but does get to perform a sultry Bob Dylan number, while John Leguizamo takes to Shakespeare like a fish to water, despite not being in nearly enough scenes.
Cymbeline‘s main problem isn’t in its acting but in its basic conceit. This play did not need a modernization – it needed a rewrite. Perhaps in the 1600s, its mix of drama and tragic comedy sat a little easier, but when relocated to the modern era, it’s both unconvincing and insincere. Almereyda deserves respect for trying something risky and different, that much is clear. His film is lush with texture and evocative color, and it’s staged by someone who understands the material inside out. Almereyda’s clear idolization of the Bard, though, may be one reason why Cymbeline fails; the director is too close to see that, though some Shakespeare plays are timeless, others should have just stayed on the shelf.
Director Michael Almereyda's ambition is admirable, but his grim and gristly modernization of Cymbeline rings almost entirely false.