by Jason Via
Michael Almereyda’s movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline hit theaters this past weekend in a limited release. Cymbeline involves the only daughter of a tyrannical king marrying against his wishes. The low-born husband is banished, and one of his friends makes a competitive little bet, which leads to misery for almost everyone involved. Unfortunately, the movie adaptation disappoints the avid Shakespearean.
Almereyda’s modernization sets the characters in a biker gang named the “Britons”, led by the ruthless Ed Harris (as the eponymous character), in a small-town “Rome”. The setting transplant was rather transparent, and could have easily gone with other names. After some lengthy text exposition, the movie begins at the end, with shots of each of the main characters in the climactic moments of their arcs, and then returns to the beginning.
Much of the lackluster feel of this adaptation resides in the editing and direction. The script is cut in odd places, so that the audience only scrapes along with the surface plot, but fails to engage in the depth of the characters or their rich emotionality. Instead, their decisions seem impulsive and almost implausible because their motivations remain murky. They act as shallow caricatures, and many decisions go unexplained.
Another critical choice was the pacing and energy. The movie refused to settle into one scene, instead jumping at breakneck speed to other characters. It attempted to evoke a moody, brooding sort of tragic romance (the sort a pre-teen entering middle school might enjoy), which was quite contrary to the source material, and even its own marketing, which attempted to sell the movie as a thrilling crime drama.
It had the feel of a film trying to be too “artistic”, particularly when characters would do nonsensical actions, like Anton Yelchin’s Cloten, who dumps a trashbag of Hershey kisses onto the table during a high stakes negotiation. Sadly, he and many of the other good actors are wasted and lost in the attempt to satisfy some Oscar-winning fantasy. Often the actors are blank, and devoid of emotional expression, which leeches the lifeblood out of what is truly a story of high passion. Combined with the miserable pacing, the audience-goer feels devoid of stakes or investment in the shallow characters, feeling as blank as the male protagonist’s constant expression.
Penn Badgley portrays a skater Posthumus more emotionally flat than concrete – disturbingly, this is an accurate representation of how adolescent boys are taught to control their emotions, rather than expressing them. So in a sense, it’s a win for post-modern accuracy, just a loss for the viewer.
In a true blow, the movie cuts portions of both Imogen’s and the Queen’s speeches and scenes, robbing the audience of some of the best parts of the play. No, this is an adaptation for the patriarchy, in which all the conflict and solution is derived from the male characters.