“Boldness be my friend!”: 'Cymbeline' Review
From an early age, I made it my goal to master the works of Shakespeare. Everyone I encountered seemed to talk about how deep and arcane his plays were, and how one must be some enlightened genius to comprehend anything that was being said. The brilliant child that I was, I took this as a challenge and set to prove that one had nothing to fear from a little Old English. I devoured every play set before me in class, dug out my mother’s old tome (which still resides with me in my apartment to this day), signed up for all the Shakespeare clubs and camps I could find. I was determined to have a working understanding of every work, as I was sure such talents would only bring me the awe and adoration of my peers. While that may not all have panned out (I did get a short-lived and crazy girlfriend out of one camp, and even a few lasting pals though), my desire to comprehend the timeless works of such a dialectic titan did bring their personal joys. Even with over a decade of study, there are still some works that have escaped me – take, for instance, this week's performance, Cymbeline.
Starring Ed Harris as the titular king of Britain and Penn Badgley as the protagonist Prince Posthumus, this bloody Shakespeare comedy weaves together marital strife, continent-spanning war, and royal treachery brought to the 21st century in the guise of a big-city gang war between drug lords. Cymbeline must hold back the advance of the “Romans,” Posthumus is tricked into questioning the chastity of his beloved Imogen (Dakota Johnson) by the conniving Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), all while The Queen (Milla Jovovich) schemes to poison her husband and instate her son, Cloten (Anton Yelchin) as the new boss. Regions are threatened, blood is drawn, and false personas assumed, all to serve the often-questionable passions of those in power.
Having never seen or read a proper adaptation of Cymbeline, this 2014 adaptation asked a bit more of me than the average Shakespearean film, but I believe it also gave me a better sense of the perspective of the average viewer. Sure, I had the advantage of being able to compare it to the rest of his suite of works, but I still was never entirely sure of how the plot would play out. Still, on the other hand, as a student of the Bard, it was interesting to come at the story with fresh eyes, being able to note distinct similarities to other works such as Romeo & Juliet and Twelfth Night. In fact, in many ways, Cymbeline appears to be a distillation of the best parts of both plays.
But what of the adaptation, itself? Well, it’s also a strange straddler of form. With a gritty synth-punk style that feels reminiscent of recent pulp action films like Drive and John Wick, Michael Almereyda’s Cymbeline has an overt artistic leaning and one which it handles quite nicely. But deciding to swap out wars between great nations for a simple territory war between drug lords feels played out, in a way, harkening back to so many other Shakespearean updates. I mean, hell, you’re hot off the heels of Sons of Anarchy – a highly popular and influential television series that did the same thing with Hamlet and bikers – can’t you push yourself just a tad further? But this 2014 adaptation continues in the long tradition of choosing eras without changing dialogue, so maybe it’s just different enough (for the record, I’m perfectly giddy for this choice in adaptations – you either get better clarity from the original text, as with Joss Whedon’s inspired version of Much Ado About Nothing, or you get little gems in otherwise terrible films, like Baz Luhrmann’s infamous Romeo + Juliet and its delivery of the line “Bring me my longsword ho!”).
It’s quite the masterful little work of film. The acting may feel just a bit stiff, but that’s bound to happen when porting old, steeped phrasing to such a new-world setting – and at least you get some real delivery from Jovovich. In fact, the tension between these two most often adds to the scenes themselves, giving them this incredible natural pacing while requiring the viewer to key into the meaning of what is being said. There’s no quick-and-dirty Cliff Notes here, folks. There’s also a fair amount of simply beautiful cinematography, as the crew was sure to find just the right angle or lighting to keep the mood or highlight a particularly important motion or line. Still, this is far from a perfect feature, as there are at least a few awkward shots, especially those low-quality reels from over Pisanio’s (John Leguizamo) shoulder as he reveals his orders to murder Imogen for Posthumus. But these are few and far between, quickly overshadowed by the rest of the masterful cinematography at work.
As grand as an adaptation as 2014’s Cymbeline may be, it’s certainly not the convenient way to start off a trip into the film world of Shakespeare. It’s still got those little eccentricities, plot points and names are fired at you a mile a minute, and its more artsy direction make it not as inviting as, say, a Disney film with Bardic inspiration or a Brannagh-lead Shakespearean musical. But if you like oddball indie films or have even a modest understanding of the great playwright’s works, Cymbeline is an excellent entry to the history of stagings.
If blood and bullets be your true desire,
Fret not from this film, else I be a liar!