It is almost impossible to defeat Shakespeare, however much you update his plots or murder his language for contemporary purposes. Even Bollywood has had a go. American director Michael Almereyda, whose cinematic version of Hamlet starred Ethan Hawke, uses the actor again in Cymbeline and adds a bevy of stars to the mix. Shakespeare wins in the end — but it is a close-run thing.
This time around the plot is set in a clearly corrupt American city where the original Britons are represented by veteran Ed Harris as King Cymbeline, a gangster whose wife (Milla Jovovich) is plotting against him and whose daughter (Dakota Johnson) has secretly married Penn Badgley’s skate-boarding orphan boy. The Romans are represented by a corrupt police force and local authorities who demand tribute from an unwilling monarch. Hawke is the wicked Queen’s helpmeet Iachimo, who has a bet with the orphan boy that he can bed the daughter as quickly as converse with her.
All this is encompassed within Shakespeare’s text (the language survives mostly unaltered, albeit trimmed to fit a 96-minute running time). And it really depends upon your view of a play, one of the Bard’s last, but hardly one of his most notable. Should anyone take such liberties even with the kind of basic reverence Almereyda shows?
Yet the actors, who include Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo, somehow manage to convince, and the film-making is smart. Love and betrayal are the obvious themes, together with innocence and jealousy. But Sir Peter Hall’s famous stage version of the play as a kind of magical fairytale still works better than this blood and thundery adaptation.