“On her left breast, a mole cinque-spotted, like the crimson drops I' the bottom of a cowslip.”
It’s been over 14 years since Director Michael Almereyda and Ethan Hawke collaborated together in the modern day adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classical play, Hamlet. The film was warmly received by critics despite not being the first time that a Shakespeare play was adapted to modern times without changing the original dialogue (Baz Luhrmann did the same with Romeo + Juliet in 1996). Once again Almereyda decides to leave the dialogue untouched and change the setting to modern times for the adaptation of Cymbeline. The King (Ed Harris) of a biker gangster group known as Britain is upset that his daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson) has fallen in love with his protege, Posthumous (Penn Badgley), who she secretly married. The two have sworn eternal love to each other, but the King’s second wife, the Queen (Milla Jovovich), has other plans for Imogen. She wants her to marry his son, Cloten (Anton Yeltsin) so they banish Posthumous from their group. Meanwhile the bikers have decided to stop paying tribute to the Roman Police Department and a war is about to breakout between the two groups. Posthumous has fled to his friend’s house where he ends up meeting Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) and tells him all about his lover’s chastity. Iachimo makes a bet with him claiming that he can seduce her and prove that she’s not as pure as he believes her to be. He meets Imogen and is unsuccessful in his approach, but Iachimo fools Posthumous into thinking he did sleep with his lover and that is where the plot begins to take several unexpected twists.
If the short synopsis of this film felt a bit convoluted, it’s because the film actually has a lot going on in the opening minutes where it’s trying to introduce the main characters in a very rushed way. The dialogue doesn’t help either if you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s play because the delivery is extremely fast and new characters keep on coming from all over the place. It’s strange that I’m complaining about how fast everything comes at you, because the pacing does get quite tedious and I was thankful the film only runs a bit past the 95 minute mark. But that doesn’t mean that the adaptation isn’t a mess because it’s all over the place. One of the reasons why this adaptation didn’t work for me is that the tragicomedy plays out as pure tragedy here and the comedy element is missing from the film. There was no time to get to know any of the characters or their true intentions and it seemed the entire purpose of this film was being able to adapt the play in a modern setting without touching the dialogue. Something that Whedon accomplished much better in Much Ado About Nothing because he focused on the comedy more than on the action. It’s funny that I say this because I wasn’t even a fan of Whedon’s adaptation although I recognized its artistic value, but here there’s nothing that worked for me.
Shakespeare’s plays might be timeless, but that doesn’t mean that all of them can be adapted to film. Cymbeline seems to be one of those plays that don’t translate well to the big screen due to the convoluted plot. The performances in this film aren’t bad, and I like most of the actors here, but the problem for me was that the adaptation didn’t work at all. Not even John Leguizamo can redeem the film despite how well he’s played Shakespearean characters in the past (Romeo + Juliet). Ed Harris and Ethan Hawke are both extremely talented actors, but there was nothing they could do to engage me with the film. I love Shakespeare’s plays and despite never having read this one, I still could see some of his trademarks in the characters and writing, but unfortunately I didn’t care for them in this adaptation.