'Cymbeline': Can the Shakespeare play be updated successfully for a movie?

A film version starring Ed Harris, Ethan Hawke, and Dakota Johnson comes out on March 13. Does updating the action to the present day work for the story?

Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Ethan Hawke arrives at the 2015 Academy Awards.

A movie version of William Shakespeare’s play “Cymbeline” which updates the action to modern day is set to be released on March 13.

“Cymbeline” tells the story of a princess named Imogen, who gets secretly married to a man in her father’s court. Meanwhile, there is strife between her father, King Cymbeline, and Caesar Augustus. 

In the new movie, it’s not Romans and Celts battling but bikers and policemen. “Gravity” actor Ed Harris portrays the king, while “Fifty Shades of Grey” actress Dakota Johnson portrays Imogen, Milla Jovovich is Cymbeline’s wife, Penn Badgley of “Gossip Girl” is Imogen’s husband Posthumus, and Ethan Hawke is Iachimo, a man who places a bet with Posthumus that he can win over Imogen. 

Actors Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, and Bill Pullman also co-star. 

This is, of course, not the first time a Shakespeare tale has been updated to contemporary times – recent efforts include Joss Whedon’s 2012 film “Much Ado About Nothing,” the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film “Romeo + Juliet,” and a 2000 version of “Hamlet” starring Hawke which was directed by “Cymbeline” helmer Michael Almereyda. In addition, Shakespeare and biker gangs have been put together before – Kurt Sutter, creator of the successful FX show “Sons of Anarchy,” told Vulture, “I loosely based all my characters on ones from 'Hamlet.'” So can Cymbeline set itself apart? 

Early reviews have been mixed to negative. Variety critic Peter Debruge wrote that the movie feels “out-of-time… but holds our interest, thanks to [the] cast.” 

“The helmer has opted to focus more on the somewhat ridiculous fidelity test,” he wrote of Almereyda. “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… Still, ‘Cymbeline’ is no ‘Hamlet’ when it comes to material… a final scene [is] so improbably overloaded as to seem comical.”

Meanwhile, David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter wrote that “what this moody contemporary update does is expose the play as a second-rate Romeo and Juliet that just wasn’t made for these times.” Rooney also noted the strangeness of the bet in which Posthumus and Iachimo participate. “Almereyda doesn’t even attempt to justify why Posthumus would take the bet,” he wrote. “That’s one of the reasons Almereyda’s adaptation only half works at best. Too many of the situations just don’t play convincingly in the contemporary reality… Almereyda puts together a slick-looking, well-paced package. But the central conceit simply doesn’t hang together well enough to create credible dramatic stakes.” 

Telegraph writer Robbie Collin was even less impressed. 

“Almost nothing seems to click,” Collin wrote. “The plot… is a snaky one even by Shakespearean standards. But rather than trying to make sense of its narrative contortions, the film disguises them with gimmicks and posturing, with the result that it doesn’t just feel implausible, but insincere into the bargain.”

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