There have been many attempts to modernize the works of William Shakespeare. The Bard’s classic language is something many writers and filmmakers have tried to bring to the screen. This doesn’t always work unfortunately and while the motion picture is a more than appropriate medium to do this, it can sometimes be an utter disaster. One of Shakespeare’s later plays, Cymbeline, has caught the attention of director Michael Almereyda. No stranger to Shakespeare, he actually helmed the Ethan Hawke-starred Hamlet back in 2000. With an all-star cast and an intriguing premise, Cymbeline has loads of potential. Sadly, the actual resulting film falls painfully short. With the actors reciting Shakespeare’s dialogue word for word, this film will detract many but others might find it rather interesting.
Like many Shakespearean plays, Cymbeline focuses on a war between two very different groups of people. Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is the leader of the Briton motorcycle gang and he constantly butts heads with the head of the Roman police department, Caius (Vondie Curtis-Hall). Caius’ wife The Queen (Milla Jovovich) plans to get rid of Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) who is currently dating Posthumus (Penn Badgley). Meanwhile, troublemaker Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) makes things complicated by placing a bet on Imogen’s honor. All in all, it’s a delightfully warped tale that is tragic, action-packed and in some instances, kind of funny.
While the screenplay is in old English, the plot is basically universal. The actors play out the story as best they can and with a cast like this, it’s a shame the film wasn’t spoken in modern day English. Ed Harris is brilliantly intense as always as the leader of a rough and tumble gang. John Leguizamo plays his right-hand man Pisanio and he is a breath of fresh air though his delivery of the Bard’s lines is slightly awkward. Anton Yelchin gives a charged performance as Cymbeline’s emo son Cloten. Supporting roles from Kevin Corrigan, Bill Pullman and Delroy Lindo enhance things considerably but it’s pretty irritating that they are speaking a language that is foreign to so many.
Shakespeare enthusiasts will certainly get a kick out of Cymbeline since it does pay respect to the greatest writer of all time. The modern day setting and plot elements combined with the old English makes for a pretty unique film experience and there are moments that warrant a viewing but the movie as a whole is a bit lopsided. Fifty Shades of Grey star Dakota Johnson’s acting is a bit aggravating but she is sexy as ever here. Ethan Hawke steals the show as an instigator who stirs the pot and Ed Harris as mentioned above commands the screen beautifully.
The final confrontation of Cymbeline is appropriately dramatic, with all main and supporting characters engaging in a violent street war. This is definitely the most visually stunning sequence and rightfully so. However, the film is littered with moments of awkward tension and the actors definitely revel in these moments. 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and 2000’s Hamlet are other high profile films that have attempted to bring Shakespeare’s language style to the modern day masses and they really aren’t for everyone. Cymbeline is another attempt at this and while the acting is on the point, it’s the classic language that hurts the film significantly.