“Cymbeline” may be the red-headed stepchild of Shakespeare’s plays. Theoretically, it’s got it all: a scheming queen, beheadings, mistaken identities, battlefields, magic potions, a girl passing as a boy. But with a labyrinthine plot, unaccommodating verse, and oddbot allusions to the Bard’s earlier works, it defies categorization, let alone easy analysis. Who but a director like Michael Almereyda – best known for his modish, moody 2000 adaptation of “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawke – would dare tackle such fare?
I’m glad he did. Shakespearean adaptations are a dime a dozen but most are “as inspired by the play by William Shakespeare” affairs like “10 Things I Hate About You” or Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet” (though the former is a solid 1990s Heath Ledger vehicle). Movies that really honor the playwright’s spirit are rarer birds, and with a languid playfulness, Almereyda has made exactly that. He also has shown us that “Cymbeline” is a play whose time has come again.
Like Almereyda’s “Hamlet,” this film is set in modern times but preserves an unusual amount of Shakespeare’s original speech. It is a study in sly casting, too. With his unhappily darting eyes and small shoulders squared in a leather jacket, Ed Harris is perfect as Cymbeline, the king of a motorcycle gang – as is Milla Jovovich as his second wife, a queen so cruelly beautiful that her tiara doesn’t even seem ironic. (More than any actress of her generation, Jovovich has always seemed born to play cruelly beautiful middle-aged women.) With saucer eyes and the smoothest of skin, Gossip Boy Penn Badgley plays the skate-boarding Posthumous, Cymbeline’s favorite disciple until he falls for Imogene (Dakota Johnson), the biker king’s daughter. Though lovely in a new-millennial-doll sort of way, she widens her eyes and mealy-mouths her dialogue as if nothing more could be required of a third-generation scion of Hollywood sirens (her mother is Melanie Griffith; her grandmother, the swoony Tippi Hedren). Such reacting rather than acting works here, though, as she mostly serves as the object around which all the real action rotates. Continue Reading →