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D: Michael Almereyda / 98m

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Anton Yelchin, Peter Gerety, Kevin Corrigan, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Delroy Lindo, James Ransone, Spencer Treat Clark, Harley Ware, Bill Pullman

Imogen (Johnson) and Posthumus (Badgley) are young lovers who have married in secret and exchanged gifts of a ring (for Posthumus) and a bracelet (for Imogen). Their marriage is not to the liking of Imogen’s father, biker king Cymbeline (Harris). He banishes Posthumus, and so paves the way for his second wife, the Queen (Jovovich) to advance her own son, Cloten (Yelchin) as Imogen’s husband, in an attempt to secure control of the biker gang when Cymbeline is dead. Aided by his servant, Pisanio (Leguizamo), Posthumus goes to stay with his friend Philario (Ransone). There he meets Iachomo (Hawke) who wagers that he can seduce Imogen to prove that she isn’t as virtuous as Posthumus believes. The wager accepted, Iachomo visits Imogen and when a direct assault on her virtue backfires, he portrays it as a test of her commitment to Posthumus – which she accepts. Before he leaves he asks her to look after an item for him overnight, which she also agrees to.

The item is a chest, one that Iachomo has hidden himself inside. While Imogen sleeps he climbs out of the chest and puts together evidence that he has slept with her. He takes this evidence back to Posthumus who, enraged by Imogen’s seeming duplicity, sends two letters: one to Imogen asking her to meet him at Milford Haven, the other to Pisanio asking him to take her there and when they arrive, to kill her. Pisanio, however, is unable to carry out his order and shows Imogen his letter. He has her disguise herself as a boy and tells her to travel on to Milford Haven; he also gives her what he believes to be a remedy for travel sickness that he has taken from the Queen, but which is a potion that will mimic death.

Meanwhile, Cloten discovers Posthumus’ plan to meet Imogen and heads to Milford Haven himself with the intention of killing Posthumus and bringing Imogen back to marry him. Imogen has reached the town already and fallen in with Belarius (Lindo) and his two “sons” Guiderius (Clark) and Arviragus (Ware). She tells them her name is Fidele. While they are out hunting, they encounter Cloten who insults and then threatens Guiderius, who in turn kills him and then beheads him. Imogen, feeling unwell, takes the remedy and becomes as dead. Belarius decides to bury her with Cloten’s body; when she wakes she believes Cloten to be Posthumus as he is wearing similar clothes. With both she and Posthumus believing themselves lost to each other, an impending war between Cymbeline’s gang and the Rome police – to whom they pay a tribute – proves to be the unlikely cause of their reconciliation.

Cymbeline - scene

In adapting the play by William Shakespeare, writer/director Almereyda has done two things very well, and two things not so well. The first is to employ an incredibly talented cast, all of whom are able to take Shakespeare’s lines and make them sound as natural as modern day speech, fully understandable and with clear purpose in their meaning. The likes of Hawke – reuniting with Almereyda for the first time since Hamlet (2000) – Harris, Leguizamo and Lindo provide convincing interpretations of the prose and help the casual viewer through some of the more confusing aspects of the plot (mistaken identities are key here). The second is to condense the play’s final third into a more manageable “wrapping up” of things, even if it all feels rushed and at the expense of the movie’s previously more measured pace.

But where Almereyda gets those things absolutely right, where he gets it absolutely wrong proves too damaging for the movie to recover from. The first is to set the action in a modern day setting, mostly Brooklyn, and to flavour the movie as if it were a version of Shakespeare meets Sons of Anarchy. This backdrop, given that it should enhance the drama – the Queen persuades Cymbeline to back out of his arrangement with the Rome police in the hope that war between them will see him dead – instead seems ponderous and ill-considered, more of a budgetary consideration than a narrative one. It leads to some incongruous moments, such as Cloten pushing a motorbike along a gravel road, Imogen choosing her nom-de-plume thanks to a T-shirt worn by Guiderius, and Posthumus getting about on a skateboard. While some of these tweaks may have appeared sound in the pre-production phase, on screen they’re not as effective as was probably hoped for.

The second problem is with Almereyda’s direction itself. The movie plods along from scene to scene with little energy or flair displayed, and struggles to provide any momentum to take the audience with it. There’s a signal lack of connection between scenes that makes for a stop/start experience, the narrative appearing jumbled and ill at ease with itself, like a story that needs more cohesion. With so many subplots and supporting characters, Cymbeline looks and feels like a movie that can’t quite get a grip on what it’s trying to say, or even how to say it. Again, if it weren’t for the very talented cast, the movie would founder even more, and the audience would be left adrift, waiting – unsuccessfully – for Almereyda to place his authority on the material and make it work with more style and verve.

Generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays (written at a time when he seemed to be bored with them), Cymbeline is a strange choice for a movie adaptation, its tale of thwarted lovers and political machinations proving not quite as amenable to the translation as might be expected. It also looks very much as if it were shot too quickly – some of the set ups look rushed or improvised. Still, it’s a brave choice by Almereyda, but if he has any plans to adapt any more of Shakespeare’s works, he might be better off securing a bigger budget, and concentrating on the script rather than directing. After all, “the play’s the thing…”

Rating: 5/10 – a dour, unimpressive adaptation, Cymbeline is rescued by a set of strong performances and an astute conflation of the plot; not as engrossing as it should have been, but not as awful as the early scenes seem to indicate.