exactly comedy or tragedy, Cymbeline
is considered by many critics Shakespeare’s sly attempt at self-parody. Its
only highly quotable line is: “the game is up,” so it is no surprising 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 (trailer here), which opens
tomorrow in New York.
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 step-son 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.
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 as other are very much a product of their time and place.
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.
the other hand, the younger romantic leads and rivals largely underwhelm.
Dakota Johnson is just sort of eh as Imogen. Penn Bagley is a double-eh as
Leonatus and Anton Yelchin is a triple-eh as Cloten. Generally speaking, the
older and more seasoned the cast member, the better they come across in
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 non-traditional Shakespeare, Cymbeline
opens tomorrow in New York at the Quad Cinema.
Labels: Delroy Lindo, Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Shakespeare on film