Not exactly comedy or tragedy, “Cymbeline” is considered by many critics to be Shakespeare’s sly attempt at self-parody. Its only highly quotable line is “The game is up,” so it is not surprising that it is one of the Bard’s least performed plays.
Yet, that makes it considerably easier for Michael Almereyda to stage a liberty-taking modernized production. The battle fought by the Celtic British and the forces of Rome becomes a conflict between the British biker gang and the Rome Police Department in Almereyda’s “Cymbeline.”
In many ways, “Cymbeline” really is a mash-up of Shakespeare’s greatest hits, starting with the star-crossed romance of Imogen and Posthumus Leonatus. Having secretly married, they have already gotten further than most Shakespearean lovers.
However, Imogen’s father, Cymbeline the biker king, is less than thrilled when their union is revealed. Since he essentially promised Imogen to stepson Cloten, the loutish offspring of his Lady Macbethish second wife, it is a rather awkward turn of events for him.
Fleeing Cymbeline’s wrath, Leonatus takes refuge in Italy (or somewhere more prosaic), where he encounters the Iago-like Iachimo. After listening to Leonatus boast of his wife’s fidelity, Iachimo wagers he can seduce the woman. It is a bet Iachimo will collect through deceit and subterfuge.
There is no avoiding the antiquated vibe of the Iachimo storyline, but Almereyda plays it up big anyway, because the old scoundrel is portrayed by Ethan Hawke. Much more successful is the geopolitical intrigue reconceived as the biker gang’s fraught dealings with the corrupt civic constabulary. Some things are timeless, whereas others are very much a product of their time and place.
Of course, Ed Harris as a leather-jacket-wearing biker monarch blasting away with an assault rifle gives Almereyda a solid base to work from. He has the stately presence of a Shakespearean king, while calling back to his early roots in George Romero’s “Knightriders.”
Believe it or not, Milla Jovovich pulls off the Queen’s Machiavellian iciness quite well. Bill Pullman has limited screen time, but he makes a great entrance as the ghost of Leonatus’s father, while John Leguizamo is well cast as Pisanio, the wily servant. Nevertheless, it is Delroy Lindo who steals scene after scene as Cymbeline’s banished former ally.
On the other hand, the younger romantic leads and rivals largely underwhelm. Dakota Johnson is just sort of “eh” as Imogen. Penn Badgley is a double-“eh” as Leonatus, and Anton Yelchin is a triple-“eh” as Cloten. Generally speaking, the older and more seasoned the cast members, the better they come across in Almereyda’s “Cymbeline.”
Once known as “Anarchy,” the updated “Cymbeline” openly invites comparison to “Sons of Anarchy.” It is a strange choice for such a treatment (perhaps “Julius Caesar,” the grandpappy of all power struggles, would have made a better fit), but the greasy roadside settings are considerably more effective than one might expect, giving it a distinctly austere but slightly unreal aesthetic.
It is clear why “Cymbeline” is considered a minor work in the Shakespearean canon, but perhaps the best way to handle it is by thoroughly recontextualizing as Almereyda does. It is an odd little film with a big cast that is rather entertaining, in an idiosyncratic way, despite its ragged edges. Recommended for fans of nontraditional Shakespeare, “Cymbeline” is playing in New York at the Quad Cinema.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Release date: March 15
3.5 stars out of 5
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, visit JBSpins.blogspot.com