Cymbeline Dakota Johnson

Cymbeline Review: The Limits of Modernity

Friday, March 20, 2015 Rob Samuelson


Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda (from William Shakespeare's play)
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Penn Badgley, Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, Anton Yelchin
Rating: Two and a Half Stars Out of Five

There is no new way out there left to adapt William Shakespeare. He's been done in the classic sense, in which the most minute details of the period and play are adhered to. He's been done in strange pseudo realities, like Julie Taymor's Titus. Sometimes his plays are plopped in a modern setting and sometimes his words get chopped up, rearranged, refitted, and redesigned for the adaptation's purposes. In Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, arguably the best cinematic adaptation of the Bard's work, there is a mix of all those, to thrilling effect.

The point is, a filmmaker is unlikely to hit upon a new direction to take Shakespeare's plays, so the choice that is left is in which previous direction – or combination of previous directions – suits the play being adapted. Are the play's specific turns and settings and events truly analogous to modern day? Is realism befitting something with such highly poetic dialogue? Is that dialogue necessary or is the true worth of the play in its structure and themes? Should the actors be chosen for their training and familiarity with Shakespeare's work or should modern sensibilities and naturalism rule the day? These and other questions must be answered and reexamined from the inception of a new project involving the work of such a well known creator. You can't just pick any angle and call it a day, expecting your small contribution to the man's work to result in transporting cinema.

That is where the problems with Michael Almereyda's new adaptation of Cymbeline crop up. With some script changes here and there, he generally leaves the text untouched but situates it in the modern day, with the British upstarts run by King Cymbeline (Ed Harris) portrayed as a biker gang and their Roman overlords as police officers in repainted LAPD cars. Milla Jovovich's scheming Queen character is reminiscent of a mob wife. So far, so fine, whatever. These changes are nothing revolutionary, but they retain the spirit of the work for the most part, which is an adaptation's job.

Where Almereyda first runs into trouble is in casting. As the two lovers at the film's center, Imogen and Posthumus, Dakota Johnson and Penn Badgley are incorrect. Much of Johnson's skill as a performer lies in her comic timing and naturalistic presence, a riffing, improvisational quality that draws strength from her ability to listen and react to the other people onscreen with her. Shakespeare's style does not lend itself to these strengths, all authoritative, flowery language and precision. At times, Johnson's discomfort with the material is visible as these regimented lines struggle to leave her lips. She fares much better at the visual aspects of Imogen's arc, with her eyes searching to trust people and always being let down by their pettiness and manipulation. As for Badgley, well, he's handsome. The lines aren't a huge difficulty for him, but he is fairly blank in delivering them, and he seems less full of youthful angst than Ambien. The film would greatly benefit from swapping Badgley and Anton Yelchin, who gives a spirited, lively-ish performance as Imogen's stepbrother, Cloten.

In a larger sense, Cloten, unfortunately, is another example of the film's issues. He is subtext made text via the literalizing properties of choosing a modern lens for the adaptation. Whereas the character is meant to be in love – or at least lust – with his adoptive sister from afar, the film makes that as crystal clear as possible. It's creepy, sure, so that box gets checked, but the certainty of his intentions is somehow less unsettling than if they were left just beneath the surface. Ditto for the film's handling of Ethan Hawke's Iachimo, whose sleazy, violating intrusion sets everything in motion. Hawke gives a fine, slimy performance as the lying dynamo, but Almereyda's insistence on including the trappings of our modern world takes much of his power away. Whereas the play hinges on the character's con man abilities to convince Posthumus of Imogen's untrue unfaithfulness, Iachimo's access to iPhones and Photoshop feels like a lack of trust in Hawke's abilities as an actor. This is a character who should be able to weave a tale of deception through words alone – doctored evidence is untrue to the strength of the character.

While Almereyda takes some turns with the material that don't work, he does a lot of the little things so well so as to make up for some of the conceptual misfires. His use of music is so refreshing. While most films of this era are drenched in unremarkable, wall-to-wall orchestration, he lets most of Cymbeline's conversations breathe. He trusts Shakespeare's words to have enough power to make the point by themselves without resorting to extra manipulative tactics like swelling strings. At one point, when it first appears he loses the script on this point, Almereyda pulls a gotcha by cutting to reveal the music being sung by Jovovich's Queen, thus making the song the point rather than an unnecessary enhancer. The same goes for a later scene which makes diegetic use of Toots & The Maytals' “Pressure Drop,” which is perhaps a little on the nose for the theme of the moment, but when used in conjunction with visual montage instead of playing over dialogue like a top-down decree to understand the importance of a scene, it works. Much like his sense of music, Almereyda makes a move in the right direction for the future of low budget, high definition digital moviemaking. While the limits of the medium are still present – everything looks too clean, indoor scenes must be lit less harshly to avoid looking like a sitcom, among other things – the way he shoots outdoor sequences looks terrific. A car chase along a bridge on Los Angeles's outskirts is stark, with the magic hour sun gleaming, showing a better life just outside Posthumus's grasp. A burial site in a quarry of what looks like giant charcoal chips is gorgeous and evocative of crumbling granite, much like the broken kingdom portrayed in the story.

Unfortunately, these technical achievements aren't quite enough to overcome Cymbeline's flaws, but they are indicative of a filmmaker trying things that don't work, rather than someone unable to put together a competent piece of cinema. It's a failure of ambition and effort, and a light failure at that. There's no striking out looking with Almereyda.

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