Venice Film Festival: Cymbeline


Directed by Michael Almereyda
Starring Dakota Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, Anton Yelchin, Penn Badgley, Ed Harris, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark and Delroy Lindo

by Joanna Orland

Like much of the great writer’s work, Cymbeline, one of William Shakespeare’s lesser known plays, has been adapted into a film and modernized for today’s audience.  Those unfamiliar with the original play may mistake Cymbeline as one of Shakespeare’s great comedies after seeing this latest adaptation.  Thou art mistaken as Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s tragedies, albeit with a few comedic moments embedded in its sheer absurdity.

Almereyda’s modern day adaptation takes the story from the royal courts of Britain to the mean streets of America.  King Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is leader of the Briton Motorcycle Club who clashes with the Roman police force.  His daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) has married Posthumus (Penn Badgley) while Cymbeline’s wife the queen (Milla Jovovich) is angered by this as she wants Imogen to marry her son Cloten (Anton Yelchin).

Whilst moving this story from Britain to America to create an American Shakespeare in setting, acting and tone, the language is not updated to match the modernization.  Use of technology, gang wars and plot holes stand in stark contrast to eloquent language which sounds very much out of place not just in an American accent, but in this style of film which is more reminiscent of the 1999 film Cruel Intentions than any Shakespeare adaptation.

While trying to Americanize a work of Shakespeare, transposing it onto the modern troubles in American life is not an ill-conceived concept as proven in Almereyda’s 2000 version of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke who gives the only good performance of this film.  However, it is the execution that fails this film.  The script should not have been adapted word for word.  The Briton / Roman references are hilarious at times, especially as President Obama is displayed on scenic TV screens.  Surely a story merely based on Cymbeline would have worked much better.  As it stands, the use of Shakespeare’s language heightens the story’s flaws in a modern day setting, and detracts from the story and performances which could have been much more riveting using words to match its style.  This reads as a Shakespearean Gossip Girl.

While Shakespeare’s work may remain timeless, this adaptation of Cymbeline begins and shall remain dated.


Leave a Reply