Cymbeline is American Shakespeare set in a rundown backwater town in small town Americana with all American actors. Director Michael Almereyda said at a press conference for Cymbeline at the Venice Film Festival “We can’t pretend to be part of a British tradition.” Almereyda wanted the film to be more intimate unlike the theatricality innately present in British Shakespeare. Actor Anton Yelchin expounded upon this saying “there is a distinct English tradition and you cannot allow yourself to be repressed by the Shakespeare canon.” Actress Milla Jovovich calls what they did in Cymbeline “the naturalistic version of Shakespeare.”
Cymbeline is a late play which hit the stage in 1610 and is typically considered the problem child of the Shakespearean literary canon. Cymbeline unfolds as a tragedy and shedding all its armor ends up naked and crazy as a comedy: it is a romance, a bloody love story. Cymbeline is mythic, pre-Christian, tribal, mythological, and the characters go through the extremes of emotion. This made Almereyda think of the tribal alliances of American gang and biker culture. The biker film is a purely American cinematic phenomenon with films like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider being immortalized as a purely American myth. However, the bike riding and the drug dealing is merely a framework for what the film is really about – emotion. Almereyda wanted to shoot the film in Scranton, Pennsylvania – a ruined, rugged city and a former mining city still in the shadow of its post-industrial glory.
Ed Harris plays Cymbeline, 21st century drug lord and king of the biker gang, the Britons. A purring, vape smoking Milla Jovovich, who could do with more screen time, plays Cymbeline’s second wife and a kittenish queen who sets the deadly war between the bikers and the bad cops, ‘Romans’, into motion. As the bikers and cops war ensues Cymbeline banishes his daughter, Imogen’s (Dakota Johnson), new husband – orphaned skater dude Posthumus (a mediocre Penn Badgley) – also thanks to the queen. The queen incestuously wants to marry off her son, Cloten (a jealous tilting on deranged Anton Yelchin), with the king’s daughter so the secret marriage does not go down so well. The Shakespearean plot continues with the introduction of stolen princes raised outside the court, temporary death from a sleep potion, mistaken identities, cross-dressing, a scheming queen, a heroine who disguises herself as a boy, and a pair of semi–star-crossed lovers.
A Halloween trick-or-treat visual motif serves as a compelling backdrop for the unfolding violence, misrecognition, and disguise that Shakespeare’s Cymbeline explores. The film is full of Hershey kisses, skeleton masks, jack-o-lanterns, and cobwebs with the ‘queen’ strutting around the house in a plastic tiara. This adaptation is a bit mad, a little wild, tender, mischievous and erotic.
The film has the power of an all-star cast behind it including newcomer and the upcoming star of 50 Shades of Grey, Dakota Johnson. Almereyda originally told Dakota he would not cast her because she was not famous enough. But after talking to her he was struck by her openness and sly humor and he decided he wanted to cast her for the role of one of Shakespeare’s greatest heroines, Imogen. Two days after she was cast in Cymbeline she got the lead role in 50 Shades of Grey. Lucky Almereyda.
One of today’s most sought after young actors Anton Yelchin plays the Cruel Intentions-esque, leather-clad character of Cloten who masturbates to the thought of his step-sister. Anton said at a press conference for the film “I love this character. He is a complex and beautiful, spurned, young man with mommy issues who wants to rape and murder.” Anton continued to describe Shakespeare as the master of stories on dysfunctional families.
Ethan Hawke who plays the charmingly lecherous Iachimo described Cymbeline as a mix of high and low culture: “There are Chinese fortune cookies but they reference ideas of fortune and rebellion.” Anton continued that the gangs and violence in Shakespeare are what pulp would be in American cinema. There is almost a mythic, comic-book grandeur to the film. Actress Milla Jovovich said “Shakespeare is on equal footing with pop culture. It has ways of referencing the world around us and with a wish to make it clear.”
High and low culture is infused with the use of both Shakespeare’s language and the excessiveness of IPhones, IPads, and MacBooks in the film. When in exile Posthumus lays a wager on Imogen’s chastity with his lascivious friend Iachimo, who is determined to prove that she will be unfaithful. A scene that works incredibly hilariously is when Ethan Hawke sneaks out of a chest in Imogen’s bedroom and takes a selfie of her and him to prove they have done the dirty deed. Iachimo convinces Posthumus that Imogene’s virtue has indeed been compromised through a selfie.
Speaking of pulp fiction there is an almost absurd Quentin Tarantino-esque quality to the film where heads get blown off, bodies are set on fire, and there are Bonnie and Clyde style shootouts. And the preposterousness of having an African American father (played with a sincere mastery of the language by Delroy Lindo) raise Cymbeline’s two lost blue eyed, blonde haired sons just adds to the wonderful hilarious absurdity of it all.
The film recalls Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 Romeo + Juliet as much of the brilliant cast is the same. Caius Lucius, head of the bad cops, (Vondie Curtis-Hall) is a familiar face from Romeo + Juliet who gives one of the best monologues in the film, and John Leguizamo who played a catty Tybalt in Romeo + Juliet plays a soft-hearted bad cop who ends up being caged naked and tortured by Cymbeline. The language of Shakespeare has a way of making everyday America or even the vulgar seem more beautiful. The best example of this is during the equally whimsical and erotic Capulet party scene from Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet. Preceding the most beautiful scene in the film where Romeo first spies Juliet through a fish tank to a drag queen singing opera, there is an almost vulgar scene of Romeo washing his hands standing next to a guy taking using the toilet. But the Shakespearean language makes even vulgarity seem beautiful. Cymbeline succeeds in bringing beauty and dazzling aesthetic to ragged, small town America through the language of Shakespeare.
Orson Welles was an influence on the film (which was shot in 20 days in HD video) who described his low-budget Macbeth as “a violently sketched charcoal drawing of a great play.” Italian director Pasolini was also a distinct influence whose films told the iconic stories of the Bible, Chaucer, and Sophocles but with immediacy and freshness. Director Almereyda, who directed the film Hamlet set in the year 2000 also starring Ethan Hawke gave his most famous speech walking through a Blockbuster video store. There is something fierce and immediate and beautiful about Almereyda’s Shakespeare adaptations: Almereyda has accomplished his goal and proved that Shakespeare as LA weekly put it ‘holds up in the modern universe’. Almereyda and his company have made a relevant modern masterpiece and the best film to premier at this year’s 71st Venice Film Festival.