Director Michael Almereyda’s new film Cymbeline has been knocked around more than a punching bag at a boxing gym. A few months back, the film supposedly had a name change–a sexier, grittier title—Anarchy, but IMDb and Amazon still have it listed as Cymbeline. Perhaps this is for the best. Anyone looking for Anarchy will be sorely disappointed. The film’s trailer is intense with fast, aggressive cuts, as well as, gritty, bold music, which suggests something out-of-control, perhaps akin to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet. The film delivers none of this.
The camera shots and edits are static. In fact, everything moves laboriously slow (well everything but the plot, which isn’t so much slow as it is missing huge chunks of information that is needed to connect with the film and its characters). If an actor turns or steps into a room, she or he does so slowly. Arguments lack intensity partially because they lack speed. Even car chases, spin outs, as well as, running and skateboard shots that suggest speed are sluggish. Several of the actors, with a few exceptions such as Ethan Hawke, seem uncomfortable with Shakespeare’s dialogue. While their delivery is believable at times, often it flows unnaturally; the lines are too deliberate rather than jumbled, one on top of the other as arguments are in real life. Even the background sounds—or lack of—bring an unrealistic feel. For example, one scene shot in a crowded bar had zero background chatter and noise. (No, it wasn’t a slow motion scene done for effect; it simply has been left out: perhaps forgotten, or a poor choice or perhaps the producers ran out of money.)
Shakespeare melds plot points from Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, and the bloodily violent Titus Andronicus. The film’s basic premise is that Iachimo, a Iago-like character (Ethan Hawke), talks the gullible Posthumus (Penn Badgley) into accepting a seedy bet. Iachimo claims he can seduce and bed his loyal Imogen (Dakota Johnson). When she spurns his advances, he falsifies the evidence to appear as though he has used her.
Ed Harris plays the title role of Cymbeline, who is a drug lord (rather than a king) in a battle against crooked cops (instead of in battle against the Romans), but this seemingly exciting plot is ancillary to the story and falls flat. Periodically, someone is shown tied up or in a cage, but the scenes lack intensity and give the viewer little reason to invest emotionally in the action. The so called drug war is more of a drug spat. Many times when the dialogue begs for a fight, the actors do not engage. The film even misses a major continuity issue that completely takes the viewer out of the story. Posthumus is duct taped to a metal table (for reasons we know not other than a general plot line of the drug lord doesn’t like him seeing his daughter). The next shot is him being lifted free from his restraints, but NO one cuts or rips him free.
Some of the film’s bashers have attacked the old language, in our modern world. This old argument is a bore. Modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s work keep him from being just another dead white guy, who only scholars can love. Unfortunately, this film doesn’t bring anything new to the table, nor does it correct the play’s long-time deficiencies. One complaint is that the play doesn’t fall neatly into any one genre: romance, tragedy, drama. This isn’t problematic for me, but what is a problem is that the film (nor the play) doesn’t takes time to explain many “whys” that would help viewers to be drawn into the story. Why does Cymbeline banish his daughter’s love Posthumus, whom she is secretly married to? What motivates Iachimo to want to harm the two lovers? As the film stands, the answers to these questions are shallow.
Overall, the film is a disappointment, especially since Almereyda’s Hamlet, starring Hawke as the moody prince, is such a prize to watch, but the film is still worth seeing, if for no other reasons than to watch one of the few film adaptations of Cymbeline and to be an educated voice in the conversation. Besides Shakespeare still has some lines worth hearing, and the last time Cymbeline has been seen in English on film was for a 1982 TV version, which stars the talented Helen Mirren as Imogen and Richard Johnson in the title role.
Film director and writer Deborah Voorhees writes reviews, features, and a weekly column Bard in Multimedia that publishes each Monday and covers books, films, recordings, web content, videos, video games, radio, television, and all emerging mediums. Send press releases and comments firstname.lastname@example.org.