Cymbeline Friday Film Focus: 2014, Almereyda

Another early summer Friday, another new release. Out in the world, it’s Baywatch and the latest Pirates of the Caribbean. For us, another new–or rather old–video version of Cymbeline. And this week, it’s the 2014 theatrical release, directed by Michael Almereyda, and starring Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson, and Penn Badgley.

This is not our first run-in with Mr. Almereyda. Back when we were discussing that melancholic Dane (jeez, was that really two years ago?…yes. Yes, it was), we reviewed his 2000 Hamlet with Ethan Hawke. I gave that modern-dress film some props for the use of security cam footage in Hotel Elsinore, Hamlet being a hipster film-maker, Ophelia wearing a wire when with Hamlet, as well as Gertrude’s silent but visible whisper to Hamlet after she has swallowed the poison. And some of the supporting performances were very very good (especially Liev Schreiber), but Hawke I thought was a bust… I think I said at the time that it was like watching a dog speak Russian. His lips move, the sounds come out, but it just doesn’t work.

Well, Mr. Hawke has improved his Shakespeare game in the intervening near-decade and a half. He’s no Branagh, Schreiber, or Hiddleston…but he doesn’t embarrass himself this time around. His Iachimo is actually pretty good (after a pretty meh first scene, but more on that later).

Almereyda, however, is up to his old “let’s-update-the-heck-out-of-the-Bard” tricks. He has set Cymbeline in the world of–wait for it–motorcycle gangs, in a weird kind of Sons of Anarchy meets Game of Thrones vibe. And I never really bought it. That said, the concept must have been pretty damned appealing given the cast he’s assembled. Ed Harris as Cymbeline. Delroy Lindo as Belarius. Milla Jovovich as the Queen. Anton Yelchin as Cloten. Vondie Curtis Hall as Lucius. John Leguizamo as Pisanio. Bill Pullman as Sicilius Leonatus. Most of these acquit themselves well–Lindo, Hall, Leguizamo are fine; Harris is wasted in the role (it’s not that big a role to begin with…cuts don’t make it any meatier). Like I said, Hawke isn’t bad; so is there anyone playing the role of the Russian-speaking dog?

Sad to say, yes. Dakota Johnson as Imogen is never believable, looking confused for much of the film. Penn Badgley as Posthumus fares a little better…but not much.

The problem for most of the performers is that Almereyda is going for such a naturalistic style, that the film comes off as having very little energy (read: that first scene with Hawke), and at times downright amateurish. So much of the film makes no sense or doesn’t work, but really I don’t want to pile on…but man, there’s certainly much to find fault with. So I’ll dispense with browser histories, flamethrowers, Hershey’s kisses, cheerleader outfits, Cloten jerking off, and Bob Dylan covers, and just ask one simple question: if there is easy (maybe way-too-easy) communication via pictures on an iPad and texts…why is it again, that Posthumus and Imogen don’t communicate AT ALL after the “seduction”?

I will give Almereyda props for one thing, though: the cheeky use of “Keep your head” as a tag-line for the film. (of course, that maybe just the marketing folks at Lionsgate).

I have taken one for Team Bard on this one, folks. I’ve watched this so you won’t have to (at but just over an hour-and-a-half, it’s a loooong short time).

You’re welcome.

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