One might expect the plottiest of Shakespeare’s plays to make the ploddiest of bigscreen adaptations, but Michael Almereyda — who turned Hamlet into a sulky Gen-Xer back in 2000 — brings a light touch to his second contempo refresh of the Bard. With “Cymbeline,” as before, he preserves the text even while updating everything else, incorporating handguns, motorcycles and a full line of Apple products into a play that barely has room for all its own intrigues. Meant to seem modern, the interpretation feels more out-of-time than ever, but holds our interest, thanks to a cast Lionsgate’s Grindstone Entertainment can leverage when it releases in spring 2015.
An unusually original later work from a playwright known for borrowing his storylines from popular literature and history, then elevating them through his own extraordinary gift for language, “Cymbeline” mostly appears to be a case of Shakespeare recycling himself. Today, the equivalent might be pop-culture magpie Quentin Tarantino capping off his career with a pic that recycled the best setpieces from each of his earlier films.
In “Cymbeline,” we get an Iago-like trickster in Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), who wagers sullen Posthumus (Penn Badgley) that he can seduce his wife, Imogen (Dakota Johnson), then fakes the evidence by taking iPhone selfies and sneaking a peek at her intimate parts while she sleeps. For the film, Imogen’s father, Cymbeline (Ed Harris), has been reinvented as the tough-guy boss of the Briton Motorcycle Club, rather than an ineffectual king among Romans, though he still dotes on his daughter the way King Lear did Cordelia, and presumes her lost, as Romeo did Juliet, after she drinks a dram of a wears-off poison.
The echoes and comparisons continue on down the line, as Cymbeline’s second wife (Milla Jovovich) is a wicked queen, a gender flip on Hamlet’s remarried mother (with Bill Pullman even popping up briefly as Posthumus’ ghostly dad). The play integrates actual gender flips into the text as well, a la “As You Like It,” when, rather than murdering the presumed-unfaithful Imogen as Posthumus has ordered, Pisanio (John Leguizamo) suggests she reinvent herself as a man. The actual plot is far too convoluted to concern ourselves with here, other than to observe that Almereyda seems to have missed the key tension, which is princess Imogen’s defiant decision to marry the penniless man she loves, Posthumus, rather than the one her father has chosen for her, Cloten (Anton Yelchin), from which much misunderstanding and bloodshed results.
Adapting the play himself, the helmer has opted to focus more on the somewhat ridiculous fidelity test — ridiculous first to imagine a loving 21st-century man challenging another to seduce his wife, as Posthumus does Iachimo, and still more so in how quickly he believes her to have fallen when Iachimo reveals that he has discovered “a mole cinque-spotted” upon her breast. Still, it’s satisfying to see Posthumus’ resulting anger transferred, Kenneth Anger-like, to a leather-clad biker gang, and entertaining to discover how he handles other contempo touches, like refusing to pay a tribute by offering a bag of silver Hershey Kisses instead.
Having learned a thing or two from Baz Luhrmann, Almereyda substitutes guns for daggers and picks his locations carefully, creating a rich, sultry-looking environment within which to stage the drama — something very much missing from his earlier “Hamlet,” and owing largely to the contributions of cinematographer Tim Orr (a longtime David Gordon Green collaborator). The film dazzles with its colors and textures, practically worshipping those jet-black leather jackets, while letting Ed Harris’ eyes express what no monologue possibly could. (Though he preserves Shakespeare’s original verse, Almereyda has stripped the play down to only the most essential dialogue, filling the remaining space with slick music and moody slow-motion.)
Still, “Cymbeline” is no “Hamlet” when it comes to material. Though laced with the elements of tragedy, including suicides and beheadings, the action builds to a big crescendo where all the misunderstandings are made clear — and then some — in a final scene so improbably overloaded as to seem comical. Standing around like the surviving suspects in “Clue” or another murder-mystery chamber play, each of the characters spills his secrets, interrupting the bloodbath we so dearly crave and delivering a giant group hug in its place — but not before Posthumus gives the still-drag-disguised Imogen a good elbow to the face, earning a big laugh at a moment when the audience hardly knows what to make of things.
Funnier still is Delroy Lindo’s revelation that the two white boys he’s raised are not his own flesh and blood, but Cymbeline’s long-lost scion. As Imogen, Johnson, soon to be seen in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” makes a terrific modern equivalent of a kingpin’s princess-like daughter, if not a very convincing boy. Yelchin sounds a bit too whiney to play Cloten, but would clearly make a great Hamlet, while Posthumus is an odd role to delegate to perhaps the ensemble’s least known player. “Gossip Girl” pretty boy Badgley interprets the role as a wood-carving, skateboarding emo type, though in the year of beardy hipsters, he looks nearly a decade out of fashion and behaves centuries out of sync.