I would like for this review to stand in as a sort of unofficial petition to all directors to DO BETTER THINGS WITH SHAKESPEARE. Because we’ve all been subjected to a bevy of shit filmmakers who have no idea what to do with these 400+-year old words, but I’m pretty sure this latest Cymbeline adaptation fully broke me. If you’re a fan of the source material, these horrible, bland retellings can start to feel like a personal insult. And if you’re not a big Shakespeare fan, well, adaptations like these are going to make damn sure you never become one.
Of course, I can scream my ‘The book/play/original whatever was better” battle cry as loudly as anyone, but ultimately, that’s not even what this is about. This is a movie that, even if you’d never read or seen the original, would be ABSOLUTLEY F*CKING TERRIBLE. There’s a certain, upsettingly common, type of Shakespeare production that has so little idea of what to do with its arcane language that all it can think to do is have actors look pretty, speak in a monotone voice, and—if possible—do nothing but whisper. This Cymbeline has a nonsensical biker theme that is clearly trying to evoke and cash in on Sons of Anarchy popularity, but even that show knows how to get actors to, you know, feel feelings. And express them in a way that makes sense. Because yes, Shakespeare’s language can be difficult to understand. It’s a challenge, but it’s beautiful. Unless you refuse to apply any emotion or meaning whatsoever to the words. Then it’s just boring as shit.
Cymbeline is, for sure (and please come at me strong if you disagree, if this is your favorite play, because I want to meet you), not Shakespeare’s finest work. It’s an rehashing of a few plots we know—the young woman dressing as a man, the dude who is so quick to believe his lady is cheating on him that he gets super murdery in response, the feuding rival families/biker gangs. It’s not the best play, but it deserves better than what we’re given here. The adaptation here centers around a biker gang’s king and queen (sure), played super boringly by Ed Harris and Milla Jovovich, who want their daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) to marry Anton Yelchin. But Imogen loves another dude who looks really pretty similar to Anton Yelchin, so yes you may get confused and/or bored (JK, it’s just bored). When Not Anton Yelchin gets tricked into thinking Imogen is giving it up to another dude, he sends his guy Pisanio (John Leguizamo) to kill her. Pisanio ends up letting her go (because she’s so pretty!) and she—naturally— has to pretend to be a boy to survive. During all of this her “royal” parents are fighting with corrupt cops or something but really NONE OF THIS MATTERS. It’s just two hours of pretty people whispering to each other. And sometimes Ethan Hawke or Delroy Lindo or someone else who can actually handle the language shows up. Ethan Hawke as the villain Iachimo is not transcendent here—it’s impossible to be when you’re confined to inflectionless whispering—but he is strong. He actually manages to sneak a bit of emotion and inflection into his speeches. His scenes with Dakota Johnson resemble something close to chemistry. It may help that Hawke has experience with director Michael Almereyda’s particular brand of Shakespeare ruining, having starred in his Blockbuster Hamlet.
Having spent much of the last decade teaching Shakespeare to adults and children, I admit I can get a little too invested in how his work is perceived. A bad adaptation sometimes feels (as I already mentioned) almost like a personal insult. But I am also then keenly aware of the ever-persistent belief that Shakespeare’s work is boring. I think this (for the most part—he had some stinkers, of course) is a ludicrous idea. What’s actually boring are adaptations like these. This kind of bland, pointlessly high concept snoozefest is the reason so many people hate Shakespeare. So thanks a bunch, Michael Almereyda, for doing your part to turn people off of the classics. I’m going to assume that was your goal all along, because I cannot fathom the idea that this might have been intended as a movie to actually be enjoyed.