In Cymbeline, director Michael Almereyda, working with cinematographer Tim Orr, strikingly calls attention to the flimsiness of the story’s settings. Characters hatch out a plan at a Chinese restaurant and the audience is allowed to ineffably sense that this location was selected, perhaps the week before shooting, for the strip-mall bareness of its interior and for its overall chintziness, which contrasts with the heightened poetic dialogue that’s taken from Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Other locations, which include warehouses, dilapidated mansions, bridges, and spartanly furnished cabins, exude a similarly purposefully contrived aura of isolated, cherry-picked formality: They’re theatrical sets as found objects, and Orr often casts them in silvery hues that convey a nihilistic impression of decay and apocalyptic impermanency.
This aesthetic supports Almereyda’s concept, which updates Cymbeline to a theoretically contemporary age of roving biker gangs, but, unfortunately, the concept itself is a problem. Almereyda’s prior Shakespeare adaptation, Hamlet, pivoted on a brilliantly simple premise that imagined the melancholy Dane as a put-upon prince caught up in the middle of a vast corporate takeover. It’s the kind of astute re-contextualization that allows modern audiences to grasp just how little Shakespeare’s concerns have aged, and it had the immediacy and ambiguity of a major film; it’s one of the best adaptations of the Bard that any filmmaker, including Welles and Olivier, has produced. The corporate buildings in Hamlet had a chilly, serrated edge to them that was intensified by the prismatic imagery. But a biker gang, despite the popularity of Sons of Anarchy, has an inescapably quaint ring to it, particularly when the king of the bikers is played by Ed Harris in what appears to be his first leather jacket since Knightriders.
The source material, which is convoluted even by Shakespeare’s narratively dexterous standards, is admittedly a tough nut for a filmmaker to crack, as it continually oscillates between farce and tragedy, endlessly adding characters to a series of ever-broadening misunderstandings. With its many treacheries, and with its heightened emphasis on sexism and gender evasion, the play might have actually lent itself to a corporate milieu nearly as well as Hamlet. But a biker-gang motif only exacerbates the play’s potential irrelevancy, and certain plot points, such as a woman dressing as a man to evade a vengeful suitor, are simply absurd in an anything-goes outlaw setting. (Why couldn’t she just hop a bus somewhere?) Almereyda, a meta jokester, is aware of this absurdity, of course, and utilizes it to heighten the inherently portable tradition of theater (he wants you to be conscious of the play as an artifact of another time), but this playfulness doesn’t serve any particular purpose, apart from self-amusement. And most of the modernist touches are embarrassingly broad, such as having a king spur another ruler’s tax demand by plying him with Hershey’s Kisses.
In fairness, Cymbeline is often tedious in fashions that represent a fidelity to its source material. There’s too much plot in this thing, and you’re too busy mapping out who’s who to enjoy the beauty of the verse. The actors imbue occasional moments with life, particularly Delroy Lindo, who delivers his introductory soliloquy with a world-weary sadness that’s authentically heartbreaking, and Dakota Johnson, who enlivens the film’s least convincing moments with her surprising emotional unguardedness. But the film is largely an experimental stunt that features talented actors who dutifully recite material that appears to mean little to them or, in this context, to us.
Film Comment Selects runs from February 20—March 5.