*. I’m not sure what they were thinking.
*. Yes, updating the Bard by taking him to the streets, casting some attractive young people, and adding a cool soundtrack. It worked (sort of) for Baz Luhrmann with Romeo + Juliet (1996). But Cymbeline?
*. Cymbeline is not one of Shakespeare’s better known plays. In fact, I suspect there are a lot of English majors who have never read it, or have even heard of it. It’s a silly bit of work (“a kooky, wild play” in the words of director Michael Almereyda), with a crazy grab-bag of a plot that has to use a lot of expository dialogue just to keep things moving and sorted out. It’s never been very popular on stage, but in some, mainly academic, circles it has had its defenders.
*. Still, none of that disqualifies Cymbeline as material for adaptation. Indeed, its very unfamiliarity may have been part of the attraction, with Almereyda feeling like he was entering (relatively) virgin ground. But who did the studio think the audience was going to be?
*. They seem to have been unsure of this themselves. When it came out it was originally going to be released under the title Anarchy (and this remained its UK title). Why try to hide the fact that you’re doing a Shakespeare play when you’re doing a Shakespeare play, in Shakespeare’s language even? Presumably the only people interested in such a film would know or want to know that they were getting Shakespeare.
*. Well, as things turned out audiences stayed away and critics panned it. Personally I don’t think it’s as bad as all that, though I’ll admit it’s not my favourite play in the first place. Put another way, I don’t care for the movie that much but I’m not sure how they could have done much better.
*. As with any Shakespeare movie there are two audiences (who may overlap): (1) those who know the play and are mainly interested in what’s going to be done to it and (2) those who don’t know the play and who just want to see a good movie.
*. I think the first group should feel satisfied. The way the story is updated, with Cymbeline (Ed Harris) being the head of a biker gang and the Romans being the police actually works pretty well. Because of the edited text the language never gets a chance to flow, with the characters more delivering individual lines than full speeches, but all the greatest hits are there. The cast is pretty good. Dakota Johnson looks nice as a girl and a boy. Penn Badgley has a remarkable head of hair and a wrap on his wrist I couldn’t figure out. John Leguizamo is back playing John Leguizamo from Romeo + Juliet. He’s always fun. Ethan Hawke is surprisingly good as Iachimo and I also liked Milla Jovovich as the Queen. If she’s not entirely convincing that’s not a problem because in the play everyone sees through her right away, which I think may make her unique among Shakespeare’s villains.
*. As for that edited text I mentioned, well, they were never going to get away with a full-text Cymbeline and I don’t think a lot of harm is done. There’s an Emily Dickinson poem thrown in at the end to replace the appearance of Jupiter, which I think is the biggest change. But really, how were they going to handle that?
*. Now, as for the second audience, those just wanting to see a good movie, I think there are some problems. It’s a complicated plot to follow, and one that really doesn’t make much sense even if you do keep it straight. It also has a frustrating structure, with a final act that plays out as a single long, slow denouement. I thought things should have been molded a bit more so we could end on a higher note.
*. So, if you know the play I think this is well worth checking out as it’s an interesting and in many ways quite capable adaptation. The way social media is brought into the mix is particularly well handled, with Imogen being falsely slut-shamed by way of cellphone pics and photoshops. Other elements, like the Hallowe’en motif and the woodcut (which was something Almereyda just found and thought would look good in the film) don’t seem to have as much of a role to play.
*. That said, I don’t think the number of people who know the play rises very much out of the double digits, which leaves us with the second audience, and I’m afraid they’re going to be mystified and (what usually follows from being mystified) bored.