Cymbeline is director Michael Almereyda’s second Shakespeare adaptation set in modern day, his last being 2000’s Hamlet, also starring Ethan Hawke. The Bard’s late work tragedy, previously set in the Royal Court of Olde England, receives a face-lift, updated to a war between the Roman police force and the Briton Motorcycle Club ran by Cymbeline (Ed Harris). The King trades in a crown for an Uzi and a leather jacket as a drug kingpin troubled by familial strife. His second wife (the serpentine Milla Jovovich) despises Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson, proving she has acting chops not found in Fifty Shades of Grey), for not marrying her son, Cloten (Anton Yelchin).
In secret, Imogen has pledged herself to Posthumus (Penn Badgley), much to Cymbeline’s displeasure. Posthumus, like all men freshly betrothed, proceeds to make a bet that his friend Iachimo (Hawke) cannot steal his love’s chastity; Hawke is evidently having a ball with the part of a man of very little moral fiber, slithering through his scenes, abusing the trust of all those who place such faith in him.
Throw in betrayal, a series of misunderstandings, and murder, and there’s enough material on hand to lose even the most studious drama professor. Cymbeline has a reputation as one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted works, and, consequently, it’s not considered a favorite of many. As unpopular as the play has proven, it’s clearly its master’s work, reveling in teenage romance, schemers and angry members of the monarchy. To help newcomers to the story keep up, Almereyda places the contextual events in text on-screen, though an angry Ed Harris kicking down doors with a huge machine gun in tow doesn’t really need context.
Although the filmmakers can’t be blamed for the extreme reliance on coincidence and other tropes all too familiar to fans of the Bard, the choice to not alter the material remains at Almereyda’s feet. Attempting to subdue Shakespeare’s notoriously difficult play into something manageable is admirable, but some plays are far too convoluted to make sense without substantial trimming or inventive adjustments. Granted, Almereyda does tweaks the formula: most of the monologues in the play are done as voice-overs, letting actors avoid the trouble of reading verse on-camera, but the changes won’t be enough to satisfy critics.
Imogen and Posthumus’ course of true love is as bumpy as Shakespeare’s other pair of star-crossed lovers, but the gender politics are harder to swallow than Romeo and Juliet. After Iachimo tricks Posthumus into believing that he slept with Imogen, Posthumus orders one of Cymbeline’s men to murder her. It’s a plot line that may have made sense hundreds of years ago, but one that does not translate to the 21st Century. For Imogen’s sake, Pisanio fakes her death and sends her into the world, disguised. Thanks to sheer coincidence, Imogen happens upon her long, lost brothers in yet one more example of excessive narrative threads.
The cast assembled for Cymbeline is incredible (Bill Pullman Delroy Lindo and Kevin Corrigan are also in there), but the flaws in the script are too many to overcome. Fidelity to Shakespeare’s original writings can work quite well (see Kenneth Branagh), but many artists successfully take the master’s words as mere inspiration while making the material their own. Kurt Sutter managed to marry The Bard and outlaws in a modern sense successfully for seven seasons on FX with Sons of Anarchy. If only this film had taken a few more liberties with the original premise. It might be better if it had.
— Colin Biggs