Over the past couple of decades, there have been many attempts to bring the plays of William Shakespeare into a contemporary setting. The most famous of these is most likely Baz Luhrmann’s outstanding reimagining of “Romeo & Juliet,” with other examples including Ralph Fiennes’ intriguing “Coriolanus,” and Michael Almereyda’s flawed, but creative update of “Hamlet.” Now Almereyda is at it again, this time bringing one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays, “Cymbeline,” into modern day times. As a big fan of the Bard’s work, I’ve read all of what you would call his most famous works, but this is one that I had never ventured to read, nor is it one that is mentioned all that often among his other plays. This presented an interesting and potentially troublesome question: Is the fact that it is rarely performed or talked about due to the fact that it’s a difficult play to put on/discuss, or is it that even the man considered the greatest writer the world has ever known simply wrote a bad play?
Following a series of intertwining stories, the main plot follows Cymbeline (Ed Harris), “King” of a biker gang, and his “Queen” (Milla Jovovich), who is desperate to have her son, Cloten (Anton Yelchin), marry into the King’s family by marrying his daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson). However, she has secretly married her true love, Posthumus (Penn Badgley), the King’s protégé. Meanwhile, Posthumus has made a deal with an acquaintance, Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), that the latter would not be able to woo Imogen for his own. As it turns out, Iachimo is quite deceptive, providing just enough “evidence” to make Posthumus think that Imogen has indeed betrayed his love, leading to a chaotic series of events, and that’s not all. At the same time, Cloten hatches his own plan to make Imogen his own, while a war starts to brew between Cymbeline’s gang and the “Roman police force,” to which he is expected to pay tribute, but has refused. With all of these events colliding and standing in the way, will true love be able to conquer in the end?
It’s always a fascinating venture to experience a Shakespeare play that you’ve never read or know nothing about, but before Almereyda’s updated adaptation of “Cymbeline” was even halfway over, it became remarkably clear as to why we don’t hear much about it nowadays. Even from the synopsis above, you can probably tell the film’s main problem: It’s an incredibly busy play. It’s not that it’s hard to follow, but there’s so much going on that you are forced to jump back and forth between a large number of characters, none of whom get enough time to develop to the point of us caring about them. What’s more is that the film doesn’t give the story enough time to develop naturally, instead giving us the entire backstory through several captions at the very beginning. Of course, it’s understandable that Almereyda would have to trim the play down a bit and change things around, but it would seem that he didn’t take as much care with it as he should, resulting in a bit of a mess on the screen.
As for updating the play to modern day, it really didn’t seem to have much of a purpose. Almereyda’s adaptation of “Hamlet” had been a little strange in present day New York, but the strength of the play made it work regardless. With “Cymbeline,” the weakness of the play seems to play against it in equal measure, leaving us questioning why he felt the need to contemporize a work that doesn’t fit very well in the here and now. Perhaps he’s trying to say that this story is just as timeless as “Hamlet,” but this adaptation would only seem to prove otherwise.
We’ve already seen that there are issues with the beginning and the middle, but sadly there is also fault to be found with the conclusion. As the film is coming to a close, instead of a compelling climax, we are merely treated to the characters standing around for about ten minutes or so as they tell us the remainder of the plot, most of which we already know. This could indeed be another failing of the play itself, but if that is so, then it was all the more reason for Almereyda to either rework it a little better, or try to find another play to update.
What we end up with here is not only a failed adaptation of the play, but also a failed attempt at reimagining it to a different time and place. Again, it may just be that this is one of the Bard’s lesser works that doesn’t really deserve the cinematic treatment, or it could simply be that Almereyda was not up to the task of bringing it to life. Whatever the reason, it’s an adaptation that’s riddled with flaws, including a somewhat iffy cast that includes the puzzling additions of Ed Harris and Milla Jovovich, both of whom are miscast. There seem to be fewer and fewer worthwhile Shakespeare plays brought to the screen nowadays (Joss Whedon’s excellent adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” being the most recent of memory), so hopefully Almereyda will just pick a better play, put a little more thought into it next time around, and bounce right back with another intriguing interpretation of the Bard’s works.
"Cymbeline” comes to Blu-ray in a 1.85:1, 1080p High Definition transfer of outstanding quality. Every frame of the film is crystal clear and sharp without a single hint of fuzziness to cloud up the image. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is likewise flawless, allowing you to hear every bit of Shakespearean dialogue in optimal quality. Overall, there’s not a single problem to be found with the film’s transition to Blu-ray, leaving you with the best possible experience you could have.
Commentary with Screenwriter/Director Michael Almereyda, Actor Ethan Hawke, and Anthony Holden: An intriguing commentary track that has Almereyda and Holden (author of a book on Shakespeare) analyzing the play and its transition to film, with portions from Hawke discussing his character edited in. Definitely worth listening to.
Behind the Scenes of Cymbeline: A featurette that includes a mish-mash of interviews with the cast, who discuss such topics as the play and their characters. Unfortunately, it’s rather superficial, so you can easily skip it.
Extended Cast Interviews: Just as the title implies, these are longer interviews with the cast, most of which was included in the Behind the Scenes featurette. It doesn’t include much that wasn’t already in the previous interviews, so it’s easily skippable as well.
Michael Almereyda’s modernized adaptation of “Cymbeline” comes to the screen with a number of flaws, including an overstuffed plot and a questionable structure. In addition, it seems to have been a flaw in itself to try and force this play into a modern setting, especially with it not seeming to fit very well into those particular trappings. This leads one to believe that perhaps Almereyda would have been better off going with a classical telling of the tale instead, not only to avoid the awkwardness of trying to compensate for multiple elements of the play that clearly don’t belong in the present day, but also to allow the play to breathe in its natural setting and truly come alive. He needs to realize that a Shakespeare play doesn’t need to be contemporized for it to be relatable, and that trying to do so can do more damage than good. Once he learns this, there’s no telling what he’d be able to accomplish with the Bard’s incredible library of works.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD starting tomorrow.
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