Academy Award® nominees Ethan Hawke (Best Supporting Actor, Boyhood, 2014) and Ed Harris (Best Actor, Pollock, 2000) lead a powerhouse cast including Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson and Anton Yelchin, with Bill Pullman and Delroy Lindo in a gritty story of a take-no-prisoners war between dirty cops and an outlaw biker gang. When extortion, betrayal, and fiery passions threaten his criminal empire, a drug kingpin (Harris) is driven to desperate measures in this explosive, modern retelling of Shakespeare’s timeless play.
"She shines not upon fools"
Modern retellings of the works of William Shakespeare are nothing new and have been decent ventures to undertake. Movies like Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet' or Julie Taymor's 'Titus' and even Ralph Fiennes' 'Coriolanus' offer unique and interesting tellings of the Bard's great works. Even nonliteral adaptations like 'O' and '10 Things I Hate About You' take the "inspired by" approach and turn out to be successes in their own ways by telling the same stories in a modern setting without being beholden to anachronistic dialogue that doesn't exactly "fit." In the case of 'Cymbeline' it might have been a wiser to steer towards the "inspired by" approach rather than attempt to keep the true dialogue of the play in an extensively abreviated adaptation.
Cymbeline (Ed Harris) is King of the Briton Motorcycle Club, and rules through a fragile peace with the Roman Police Force. After Cymbeline's two sons Arviragus (Harley Ware) and Guiderius (Spencer Treat Clark) were stolen by the traitorous Belarius (Delroy Lindo) the only child left to him is his precious daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson). The Queen (Milla Jovovich) is Cymbeline's second wife with a son of her own Cloten (Anton Yelchin) whom she hopes to marry to Imogen and secure her son's place as heir to the throne of the club.
The loyal yet penniless Posthumus (Penn Badgley) poses a problem for both Cymbeline and the Queen. As Posthumus was raised along side Imogen, the two become lovers and marry in secret. As Cymbeline learns of the unauthorized marriage between his daughter and a lower member of the gang - he banishes the young Posthumus from the club forcing him to flee to his friend Philario (James Ransone) and Iachimo (Ethan Hawke). In his state of duress, Posthumus expounds at great lengths about the beauty and purity of Imogen and how she would never betray him for another man. Goading Posthumus about his assertions, Iachimo bets him he can woo Imogen's hand and the favor of King Cymbeline.
As Imogen rebuffs Iachimo's advances forcing him to sneak into her room late at night stealing the bracelet Posthumus gave her as a symbol of his love as well as additional "proof" of Imogen's supposed betrayal. Iachimo's actions ultimately plant the seeds of deception, distrust, betrayal and the seeds of an all out war between the Briton Motorcycle Gang and the Roman Police Force. Caught in the middle of this, Cymbeline must see his way clear through the treachery, find the truth, and spare his "club" a disastrous fate.
In a nut shell 'Cymbeline' is what would have happened if 'Sons of Anarchy' called itself "Hamlet" and kept the original dialogue of the play. Only Kurt Sutter thankfully had better story sense - at least enough to know that sometimes it's best to take the "inspired by" approach to adaptation. Part of what has made William Shakespeare's works so adaptable is that they can be altered and approached in different ways. Horror, science fiction, action, comedy, drama - Shakespeare's works can be applied to any genre if the person behind the production is creative enough. The main problem with 'Cymbeline' is that it's one of Shakespeare's later plays that appears and feels like a tragedy, but is in fact closer to one of his romances in that there is in actuality very little tragedy and that aspect of this particular play - really doesn't lend itself well to a gritty biker gang violence fueled adaptation. In point of fact it feels like a whole lot of build up for what amounts to a family reunion. Perhaps a family drama approach would have suited this piece better?
Stifling things a bit is the cast. Some of them really just do not have the chops for Shakespeare - or at least they didn't have that strong a handle on this piece of material. As expected, veterans like Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, Bill Pullman, and even Delroy Lindo and John Leguizamo in his small role as the faithful Pisanio do well with their parts and try to lift things up. However, it's the younger "kids" of the group that just drag things back down - in particular Dakota Johnson as Imogen and Penn Badgley as Posthumus - something about their cadence or line read felt like they'd memorized the words well enough - but didn't have a full understanding of their characters of the emotions behind their words. So many line reads felt hollow it was hard to get into.
Writer and Director Michael Almereyda is no newcomer to Shakespeare - I rather enjoyed his 'Hamlet 2000' when I saw it - but with this one, it just feels like he may have been in a bit over his head. Again that could be the material itself but so much of the movie feels flat and lifeless and the use of extended takes and closeups - something I normally welcome - just didn't get much life from his actors. That isn't to say 'Cymbeline' isn't a total loss or a waste of time. There's a lot to appreciate with the effort made; shot composition and the cinematography by Tim Orr can actually be very beautiful at times, but it isn't enough to elevate this film's many weaknesses.
I read the play Cymbeline long ago in high school. It's an odd play. If one could compare it to another Shakespeare play (or film for that matter) that would be 'Much Ado About Nothing.' Many of the plot beats are virtually Identical and feature many of the same themes. Where one is a comedy with dramatic elements 'Cymbeline' plays so much of the same story so deadly serious that it just feels false in the end - making it difficult to read, harder to watch performed, and stranger to see on screen. My feelings are decidedly mixed about this movie, I can only really recommend it to the curious.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cymbeline' arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Lionsgate. Pressed on a Region A locked BD25 disc - the disc opens past a series of trailers for other Lionsgate films before arriving to the main menu.
It may not be my favorite adaptation of William Shakespeare, but it looks pretty fine on Blu-ray with this 1.85:1 1080p transfer. With a slim budget, a lot of concessions had to be made - shooting on small pre-existing sets, using natural or existing lighting, costumes and so forth but everything comes through in fine clarity. Darker sequences - the beginning - for example lose a lot of fine details as it appears minimal lighting had to be used to execute the shots. Dark scenes are thankfully few and relatively contained. Most of the film actually looks bright and beautiful. There is an intentional dream-like haziness throughout much of the film's run time, but I didn't find that to be overly distracting nor did it noticeably diminish detail levels. Colors look just fine, if maybe slightly tweaked towards yellow, but otherwise everything looks great and flesh tones appear to have a nature hue to them.
With a DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track 'Cymbeline' finds a nice balance between sound effects and music, but I found the dialogue could get lost at times. Granted that is in part a side effect of some of the performances, never the less on more than one occasion I had to pop up the volume and rewind because I couldn't even guess what a particular actor or actress said. For a 5.1 surround track it doesn't have a lot to do. So much of the notable sound comes from the center channels that it becomes easy to miss any of the ambient atmosphere coming from the side and rear channels. Imigaing is also a bit subdued, but since this isn't really a dynamic action-filled film, the lack of movement isn't much of a detriment. It's a decent track that works, it just didn't blow my hair back sonically speaking.
Audio Commentary: Director/Screenwriter Michael Almereyda and Shakespeare expert Anthony Holden are clearly in one room together while actor Ethan Hawke gets his comments spliced in at random points. It's odd they're not all there together, but the talking points are interesting as they discuss adapting the play, updating it, performances and so forth. It's a decent commentary over all.
Behind the Scenes of Cymbeline: (HD 13:01) Clearly an EPK piece, it does offer some pretty solid behind the scenes bits and pieces to enjoy.
Interviews with Cast and Crew: (HD 19:39) This is a collection of interviews from cast members Ethan Hawke, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, and Penn Badgley as they talk a bit about their character and the production. Not all that informative, it feels like a lot of the material was leftover from the EPK.
Trailer: (HD 2:03) It's an odd trailer, so much of it is spent not acknowledging that it's a Shakespeare play and then that's all the marketing becomes.
When you look at the box art for 'Cymbeline' the first thing you're probably going to notice is the quote that reads "…mashup of 'Sons of Anarchy' with Game of Thrones.'" I can't tell if that was meant to be a complement or not but it doesn't exactly scream "Shakespeare" to the four winds. I appreciate attempts to adapt Shakespeare into modern settings while retaining the original dialogue when it makes sense, here i just did not fit the culture of a biker gang at all. If you're curious, I'd say give it shot and see for yourself. Otherwise there are about a thousand other adaptations of The Bard's great works to chose from that would be better ways to spend your time. With it's solid A/V presentation and an assortment of decent extras - I can really only suggest people rent it first. A blind buy is a tough sell.