Going to the theater to watch CYMBELINE reminded me of times spent being selected to serve on a jury: I had to throw out all my preconceptions and concentrate on the case as presented. Thanks to generally earnest and well-measured performances by the cast, the piece is gripping but by its conclusion is unconvincing and somewhat an empty exercise.
There's no denying director Michael Almereyda's creativity in slashing the play's contents to manageable length while retaining the beauty and power of the Bard's language. But this is familiar territory for film buffs, poaching on maverick NYC director Abel Ferrara's vision of a nihilistic parallel world New York, which he explored most successfully in influential films KING OF NEW YORK, MS. 45 and BAD LIEUTENANT. Almereyda's style is quite different, adopting an ultra-serious mood of foreboding, while Abel's explosive approach was far less wimpy, often pushing or breaking through the limits of X-rated (now NC-17) filmmaking.
Leavening this heavy, self-important mood is almost non-stop relief (almost comic) provided by anachronisms, with a NY setting imposed awkwardly on the war between ancient Romans and occupied Britons. (Abel would have cast Brits w/their distinctive accents vs. Italian/Americans with Bronx or Broroklyn twangs, but Almereyda employs a disparate ethnic mix on both sides of the equation which I found completely arbitrary apart from its "urban ethnic" slant.) This brand of humor was pioneered by the late British powerhouse Ken Russell in the '60s and '70s with works ranging from THE DEVILS to LISZTOMANIA, and is channeled by Almereyda by way of Russell's only current imitator in cinema, Baz Luhrmann (of ROMEO + JULIET fame or infamy).
Strong portrayals of the key adversaries by Ed Harris (Briton Cymbeline, as a meth drug/gang leader king) and Vondie Curtis-Hall (as the local Roman officer by way of upstate NY) are further enhanced by an even greater gravitas displayed by Delroy Lindo as the tough but kindly protector of the king's two missing sons, who he has raised and sheltered to adulthood.
Rest of the cast is variable, starting with chief protagonist Posthumus played as a handsome but rather wan figure by Penn Badgley. Overshadowing him in a memorable turn is current It girl (of 50 SHADES OF GREY) Dakota Johnson as Cymbeline's daughter Imogen, the princess, in love with Posthumus. She is very empathetic throughout the film and morphs handily into a Shailene Woodleigh lookalike in later reels when hiding out with hair cut off as boy in the usual Shakespearean cross-dressing mode.
Top-billed Ethan Hawke (who previously was a NYC HAMLET for the director) is riveting and thoroughly immersed in the text as the villain of the piece, who sets much of the melodrama in motion via his creepy wager with Posthumus that he can deflower Imogen easily. The film is at its audience-involving best during Hawke's dominant segment, and becomes rather wearisome in later reels as his importance is sidelined.
Similarly John Leguizamo commands the screen and steals most of his scenes as an ambiguous go-between character who transitions much of the action. Other standouts in small roles include a surprisingly serious Bill Pullman and sudden songstress (singing Bob Dylan no less) Milla Jovovich, cast against type as the evil step-mother queen. One of the weakest elements is Anton Yelchin as her crazy son, a role I didn't get into at all though he is a key element of the play.
So after an hour or so enjoying the intriguing upstate NYC locations and practical interior sets plus oddball elements (apt use of All Hallow's Ever/Halloween imagery throughout but silly American culture references like President Obama on TV), the final reel was quite poor, perhaps due as much to Shakespeare's intricate plotting devices as to the director's adaptation. Like plays or great novels of the period (see Fielding's TOM JONES) the disparate loose ends of the play come way too neatly together for the climax and resolution.
I guess the pernicious trend in cinema in the past couple of decades of the so-called Chaos Theory screenplays justifies this sort of dramatic nonsense (CRASH and BABEL come to mind) but the quickie payoffs of a convoluted storyline are unsatisfying to a contemporary (and thinking) audience, and easy outs that give one a "much ado about nothing" final response.
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