Cymbeline Friday Film Focus: 1982, Moshinsky (BBC)

Another early summer Friday, another new release: Wonder Woman. And for us, another new–or rather old–video version of Cymbeline. In 1982, as part of the sixth season of the BBC Complete Works series, Elijah Moshinsky directed his version. As with just about all of the BBC films, this one’s pretty stagey, and very faux Elizabethan. Well, really this one looks almost more Old Masters-ry, but that’s neither here nor there.


Now, we’ve seen Moshinsky’s work in the series before: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (solid, accessible), All’s Well That Ends Well (painterly like this one, and well worth a look), Love’s Labor’s Lost (a little too formal in my taste), and Coriolanus (ok, but weirdly self-contradictory). And the cast is definitely a well-stacked deck of actors with Claire Bloom as the Queen, Michael Pennington as Posthumous, Robert Lindsay as Iachimo, Michael Hordern as Jupiter, and my own Wonder Woman, Helen Mirren as Imogen.

Now, as I read the play, the ridiculous amount of early plot exposition gives the play an other-worldly, almost fairy-tale vibe. This production really doesn’t go that route. From the opening moments, when we hear the two lords discussing the kingdom, we don’t watch them so much as we watch an aged, uncomfortable, almost pained king Cymbeline. Stagey, stately, talking are the keywords here.

When we meet Imogen, we find a woman stressed. Frazzled, severe, this is just about the least attractive I’ve ever seen Mirren (a huge disappointment after her pretty hot Titania for Moshinsky). Initially the vocal performance is just as off-putting, almost screeching. And early on, the technical aspects of the film do the actors no favors, either. I don’t know if it’s the video transfer or not, but the picture is too oversaturated with light, and when Imogen and Posthumus move to in front of a window, the light from behind them washes everything out in the back-lit shot.

I began to worry that I wouldn’t make it through this. But the individual performances were solid. Cymbeline was old, weak, shaking…think less doddering and more Parkinsonian here…which makes the Queen’s manipulation of him cruel. And as the Queen’s son Cloten, Paul Jesson is wonderfully comic and foppish.

When the play hits Rome, the production finds its rhythm and hits its stride. Still stagey, the scene intercuts with weird close-ups not of actors but of the chessboard as Posthumus and Iachimo play. Here, Posthumus is handsome but somewhat dull, while Iachimo is obviously smart, and quick-thinking. To show the decadence of Rome, Moshinsky gives us this weirdly ornate mural in the background of the scene…but on it, up in it is this loin-clothed middle-aged man in a neck ruff, drinking from a huge goblet. I guess he was supposed to be a cherubim. A live actor hanging in a tapestry. Weird. But kinda cool.

The good luck streak continues through the wonderfully overwrought seduction attempt of Imogen by Iachimo, complete with Imogen overhearing a feigned aside by Iachimo. The chest scene that follows, with a sweaty shirtless Iachimo creeping about the bedroom works for me.

There some very very cool things at work here. The physical decay in Posthumus’ looks as the play goes on. Cloten’s song sequence, and him watching himself being dressed by Pisanio for his act four soliloquy.

And yet, there’s just something amiss. There’s some pretty judicious cutting of the script, but it doesn’t help the pacing or the length. I mean, sweet Christmas, this thing clocks in at just under 3 hours. Really. That ending scene just drags on for day (of course, that’s more on Shakespeare than on Moshinsky).

There’s a breaking of the 180-degree camera convention in the Act Three, Scene Five hallway conversation between Cloten and his mother. Honestly, it took me right out of the experience. And that viewer distancing was made worse by the later bizarre cutaway to a super-high-contrast (to the point of seeming almost animated) shot of two birds flying to avoid seeing Guiderius chopping off Cloten’s head (which happens off-stage in the play, anyway).

There are some great moments here, particularly in the first half. But … I don’t know. There aren’t many choices for viewing out there, so this is probably the one to watch (by default over the Almereyda one). Just don’t expect it to be great.

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