Ethan Hawke stars as Iachimo in Michael Almeredya's adaptation of Shakespeare's Cymbeline. Photograph courtesy of Lionsgate.

directed by Michael Almereyda

There was every reason to believe that Michael Almereyda’s film version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline would at least please bardolaters. Fifteen years ago he made a low budget Hamlet set in New York City, with the state of Denmark as a mega corporation. Modern flourishes—fax machines, Ophelia wearing a wire—ingeniously solved problems inherent in any production of the play. Every choice seemed inspired: Ophelia’s descent into madness is set on the spiral ramps of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and her shaming and shameless howls echo across the huge rotunda. Shakespeare would have approved.

Idolaters did too, but others were unimpressed, and like most Shakespeare adaptations, the film failed at the box office. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) was a rare popular success; it featured Leonardo DiCaprio and was aimed at young people. In the film the Montagues and Capulets are warring Mafia gangs in Venice Beach, California. Romeo is tripping on ecstasy when he first beholds Juliet; his love at first sight is chemically fuelled. Juliet survives long enough in the tomb for an added love scene.

In adapting Cymbeline Almereyda seems to have had one eye on Luhrmann’s success and the other on Sons of Anarchy, the motorcycle gang TV series with overtones of Hamlet. Shakespeare’s war between the Roman Empire and Britain’s first king becomes a modern-day struggle between a leather-jacketed, drug-dealing motorcycle gang led by a kingpin, Cymbeline (Ed Harris), and Rome’s corrupt local police force, headed by Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall).

Over centuries Cymbeline has been revered and reviled while being variously catalogued as tragedy, history, comedy, and finally romance. Swinburne, Tennyson, and Keats were among its greatest admirers, while Samuel Johnson deemed it absurd and impossible. More recently Harold Bloom theorized that the only way to understand the play is to realize that Shakespeare was parodying himself. George Bernard Shaw was among those who seriously doubted that Shakespeare had even written the whole play himself, calling it “a cobbled-up pasticcio by other hands.” Shaw rewrote the fifth act of the play, where it “goes to pieces” with “scraps of quite ridiculous doggerel,” but by the time he finished, he had joined the poets in their praise and condemned his own “unpardonable stupidity,” concluding that “the act is genuine Shakespeare to the last full stop.” The doggerel is not doggerel, he insisted, but “a versified masque.”

Certainly Almeredya realized how drastic his editorial choices were.

The plot resembles that of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, with unlikely twists and turns, long-lost siblings, mistaken identities, an evil stepmother, and a happy if miraculous ending—a literal deus ex machina, as Jupiter descends from heaven on an eagle to bless the proceedings. Modern productions typically do it tongue in cheek, with a bow to The Pirates of Penzance. Ten years ago Mark Rylance acted in and directed a much-admired version at London’s Globe, with five actors scurrying breathlessly to play all the parts.

Almereyda chose to forgo the whimsy and the hijinks of the final act. His melodrama is set in a version of Scranton, Pennsylvania, a tough, blue-collar city saturated with drugs and alcohol. Into this dismal setting he would have to compress the convoluted plot and the sprawling geography of the original play, which reaches from England to Rome to Wales.

To fit the play to this contemporary scenario, Almereyda cut mercilessly, even some sublime poetry. Cymbeline contains two of Shakespeare’s most beautiful song lyrics, “Hark, Hark the Lark,” later set to music by Schubert, and the funeral song “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun”—words memorialized by Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway to console Britain after World War I. Cymbeline, like all the late romances (The Tempest, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale), ends on a note of unexpected forgiveness: “Kneel not to me: the power that I have on you is to spare you; the malice towards you, to forgive you. Live and deal with others better.” If there are lines in Cymbeline that twenty-first-century audiences ought to hear, it is these.

But Almereyda did away with them, as well as “Hark, Hark the Lark.” All the actors speak bits and pieces of poetry, but not enough to summon Shakespeare: audiences are unlikely to be able to fill in the missing words or plot lines of this lesser-known play as they might for Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. Almereyda also made some unwise additions. He chose to have the wicked queen (Milla Jovovich) sing all of Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes” as evening entertainment for the gang. Perhaps Almereyda thought the song would appeal to his target audience, but it is an indigestible lump in the bowels of his Shakespeare adaptation.

Certainly Almereyda realized how drastic his editorial choices were. He portrays the hero of the play, Posthumus (Penn Badgley), making a crude woodcut of a woman and a figure of death with the words “fear no more” carved into it. It is a primitive visual image for the funeral song that fails, like the film, to convey the beauty it represents.

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In the first act of the play, King Cymbeline, a widower, has taken a second wife, the wicked queen whom Shakespeare never names. She plots to poison the king so her despicable son Cloten will inherit the kingdom. For this to work, Cloten must wed the king’s only daughter, the angelic Imogen (Dakota Johnson), but she has secretly married Posthumus, an orphan brought up at court out of Cymbeline’s generosity. (The name Posthumus literally means born after the death of his father.)

In Almereyda’s film there is no mention of a wedding. The machine gun–toting king catches the lovers making out and banishes Posthumus over the tears and protestations of his daughter. Posthumus departs on his skateboard, though he seems barely proficient on it and is shown throughout the film wearing a wrist brace; I take this to be Almereyda’s version of cinematic realism. Instead of leaving for Italy as he does in the play, Posthumus is off to another part of Scranton. There he meets Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), an Iago-like figure to whom Posthumus brags about Imogen’s beauty and fidelity. Iachimo assures him that all women are unfaithful and that with his charms he would surely be able to seduce her. They bet on it. Shakespeare supposedly took this plot out of Giovanni Bocaccio’s Decameron. Today it is difficult to imagine it without irony, but Almereyda does it in all seriousness.

Hawke, who played Almereyda’s Hamlet, chose the role of Iachimo in Cymbeline, and he clearly relishes playing the villain. He has some of the best lines that were not cut or edited, but he is less than convincing.

The faithful Imogen rebuffs him, and then comes the trunk scene. In the play, Iachimo has come from Rome, but now he has come from across town, so the trunk makes no sense. Yet it is essential to the plot. Iachimo convinces the trusting Imogen to keep it safe in her room for the night. He hides inside it, emerging when she falls asleep to take pictures with his iPhone. Fooled by the photos and Iachimo’s lies, Posthumus concedes Imogen has been unfaithful and resolves that his honor requires him to order his servant to kill her. One wonders how Almereyda could convince himself that a contemporary audience would suspend disbelief for this kind of “romance.”

Imogen was Shakespeare’s most popular Victorian heroine: the virgin queen, the faithful, long-suffering wife willing to forgive the husband who wanted her killed. She made Cymbeline a West End favorite, and all the great actresses, from Mrs. Siddons to Ellen Terry, played the part. But as the years passed this saintly paragon seemed more like a passive woman embracing her victimization: if Imogen saved the play for the nineteenth century, she ruined it for the twentieth. Bernard Shaw in his fifth act, and in advice to Ellen Terry, transformed the character into an assertive feminist.

Almereyda reverted to the passive type, casting a virginal Dakota Johnson. She is a young and vulnerable beauty, and although her reading of Shakespeare’s lines is inadequate, she possesses the only believable humanity on display in the film. In the prologue Almereyda added—a few sentences of text interspersed with footage to come—we see a woman dressed in a man’s clothing with her brown hair cut ragged and short, her face a mirror of suffering. That tragic face balances the vacant blond we encounter later. The last sentence of the prologue is a line from the play spoken by Posthumus’s servant, who cannot believe the charges against Imogen, refuses to kill her, and sends her into hiding. “But fortune brings in some boats that are not steered,” he worries when he has not heard from her. Though Almereyda begins the film with this line, it is only in retrospect that we recognize it refers to Imogen.

As she flees into the mountains of Wales, her adventures grow even more complicated and preposterous. Almereyda takes his cast through most of these twists, straining to make it believable. His version of Britain’s war with the Roman legions is a savage rampage of cop killing and car burnings, somehow rounded out by a happy ending.

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Henry James, writing about The Tempest, captured what is perhaps the essential quality of all of Shakespeare’s late romances. He imagines Shakespeare “as the composer, at the harpsichord or the violin, extemporizing in the summer twilight . . . beyond any register of ours.” What was meant for his own pleasure offers immeasurable delight to his listeners. There is none of that delight in Almereyda’s movie, and no forgiveness.