The Tricks and Treats of ‘Cymbeline’

“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.

Once Posthumous is banished from Cymbeline’s kingdom for secretly marrying Imogene, he joins up with Iachimo, an Iago-like trickster played with feral glee by Ethan Hawke. (Even his already-pointy teeth seem sharper.) After betting the star-crossed lover that he can seduce Imogene, Iachimo fakes the evidence with smart-phone pics and a sneak peek at the sleeping girl’s private parts. Brokenhearted, Posthumous dispatches his servant Pisanio (John Leguizamo, making the best of yet another sidekick role) to kill her. Instead, Pisano helps the girl escape by arming her with a mysterious elixir and male garb. What follows is even more of a hodge-podge, entailing Anton Yelchin whining like he’s never whined before and an unusually somber Delroy Lindo as the guardian of the King’s long-lost sons.

For all his demonstrated love of language, Almereyda is an exceptionally visual director, and cool, glittering interiors and wide, wild vistas save this tale from ever feeling like an academic exercise. Cinematographer Tim Orr (a David Gordon Green collaborator) finds wonderful texture in everything from Cymbeline’s worried face to a bedspread upon which Imogene lolls like a domesticated panther; his use of color, alternately hyper-saturated and elegiacally bleached-out, complements the many tones that the film strikes. A whiff of Halloween helps, too, in a funny proliferation of skeletons, masks, and tiny wrapped candies, and in the bottomless bag of “tricks” that these characters play upon each other. Even the onslaught of Shakespearean self-references doesn’t hurt; what could be more culturally relevant than “meta” these days?

The one flaw of “Cymbeline” – though it’s hardly fatal – is that it’s too muted. This may stem from an overcorrection of the histrionic antecedent material, which begins as a tragedy and then tiptoes from that precipice (with the obligatory slayings and betrayals) until it ends on the most “All’s Well That Ends Well” note imaginable. But even outsized actors like Lindo and Leguizamo seem affectless in this film, and the biggest emotions and twists wash over us like – well, like we’re all Dakota Johnson. It’s in our best interest to surrender to this gentle seduction, anyway. Haunting and richly layered, tis such stuff as dreams are made on.

This was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy