Michael Almereyda’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline didn’t get a theatrical release in Seattle that I noticed, or at least it has hit DVD before it has gotten a theatrical showing in Seattle. I don’t think it got much of a theatrical distribution at all, for that matter. From what I’ve read, this might be partly because the initial critical reaction was negative, or at least mixed. I’ve seen some enthusiastic reviews on the internet, so I’m not sure how much critical reception really was a factor in the lack of distribution. Perhaps just as important is that it’s a relatively obscure Shakespeare play that most people probably haven’t heard of, let alone read or seen. You would think the name Shakespeare might be enough to get it a showing, but apparently not. Then again, the play has frequently been derided even by lovers of Shakespeare as a tawdry and implausible mishmash of melodramatic elements, and maybe the reaction to film is a reaction to the story itself.
I’ve read the play, but only once. I’ve also watched the BBC adaptation from 1982 with Helen Mirren playing Imogen, but I confess I remember very little about it other than a snowy landscape. So my familiarity with the play is fairly minimal, although it’s hard to forget the scene where Imogen, who has herself been mistaken for dead, wakes up next to the headless corpse of what she believes is her beloved Posthumus. Cymbeline is full of over-the-top, wildly dramatic scenes like that. Harold Bloom has suggested that it’s a form of self-parody, with Shakespeare mocking his own earlier plays (cf. Juliet waking next to the corpse of Romeo). But it’s also one of the four Shakespeare plays that were retroactively labeled late romances, in the old sense of adventure stories with a heavy dose of fantasy and the supernatural. The god Jupiter makes an appearance in the play, for example, just as the gods make an appearance in the more famous of Shakespeare late romances, The Tempest.
But Jupiter doesn’t appear in Almereyda’s version. As he did with his wonderful adaptation of Hamlet (2000), Almereyda has set Cymbeline in a contemporary, if non-specific, setting of biker gangs (the ancient British tribe of King Cymbeline) and corrupt cops (ancient Rome, seeking tribute from the barbarians). He has stripped the play down to a very spare form, which has led some to complain that there’s very little of Shakespeare’s language left in it. Gone is the appearance of Jupiter, stinking of sulfur, but there’s still a brief scene with the ghost of Posthumus’ father, who quotes a poem by Emily Dickinson, which is something I didn’t discern the first time I watched the film.
One of the things that I don’t think works particularly well is the introduction, which shows us the key characters while telling us with title cards that Cymbeline’s daughter , Imogen, has married the lowly Posthumus rather than her betrothed, Cloten, who is the son of Cymbeline’s evil second wife. The opening exposition feels like an admission that the story is too unwieldy to get started without explanatory footnotes, but maybe it’s the same in the play, where two nameless gentleman give us much of this same exposition at greater length. Once the story proper kicks in, however, Almereyda’s approach works very well for me. Shakespeare’s language may be pared down to a minimum, but Almereyda has found ways to communicate the action visually that seems very appropriate to the medium and true to Shakespeare’s treatment of the frailty of human trust.
In some ways the visual approach here reminds me of what Baz Luhrmann did in Romeo + Juliet, and not just because both films feature John Leguizamo and Vondie Curtis-Hall. Luhrmann found phrases from Shakespeare — and not just from Romeo and Juliet — that he used almost like graffiti in the visual design. Almereyda does something similar, for example, by using the phrase “Keep your head” as an epigraph, which is not a quote from Shakespeare but a wry comment on the story. We also see Posthumus create a woodcut print of Imogen posing with Death, with the caption “Fear no more,” which is a quote from a song in the play sung over Imogen when she is mistakenly thought to be dead. This further rhymes with a shot of two children in Halloween costumes, one dressed as a skeleton, who is looked over by another figure in a skeleton suit, which plays like an eruption of pagan fatalism in the modern dress world of the adaptation.
Even after two viewings I’m not completely sure what song is sung during the burial of Imogen in the film. Almereyda’s use of music is also a bit Luhrmannesque, with bits of Erik Satie (I think from Gymnopédies), a Bob Dylan song sung in a night club by the sultry Queen (played by Mila Jovovich), and the Maytals’ reggae song “Pressure Drop” played on a vinyl album by a character wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. There’s other music that I didn’t recognize, including the burial song, and for all I know it might be one of the musical arrangements composed for the lyrics from Shakespeare’s play.
One of the notable things about this adaptation is how low key it is. The actors ( a stellar cast that includes Ed Harris and Ethan Hawke along with those already mentioned) uniformly speak in subdued tones, and there is very little in the way of emotional outburst. It’s almost as if Almereyda wanted to defuse the outrageousness of the play with underplayed acting. There’s also a very dry sense of humor typified by the “Keep your head” motto and in the clever updating when Imogen, in disguise as a boy, is asked what her name is, looks at the Che t-shirt, and says Fidel. It’s Fidelis in the play, which is perhaps too obvious a comment on Imogen’s fidelity to Posthumus, despite his suspicions. Fidel suggests something more radical or subversive, but Almereyda doesn’t make anything of it that I’ve noticed so far, unless he’s implying that her fidelity is a radical stance in a corrupt and treacherous world.
Then there’s the interpolation of Dickinson’s poem, which is a fairly radical move in its own right. Cymbeline has been praised for the general tone of forgiveness and redemption, and the last words of the movie are, “Pardon’s the word to all,” as even the vile Iachimo is forgiven. In the play, the ghost of Posthumus’ father berates Jupiter for the outrageous suffering of his son, whom he argues is worthy of better fortune than the god has granted him. Jupiter replies,
Jupiter is basically saying that human suffering is random, or at least not under human control, and only serves to make the gift of good fortune, which is no doubt equally an accident, more pleasurable in contrast. Compare this to Dickinson’s poem, which is quoted by the ghost of the father (played by Bill Pullman) over the sleeping Posthumus.
Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven—
For what, he is presumed to know—
The Crime, from us, is hidden—
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven.
This really does strike chords with the Shakespeare, both in the sense that the crimes to be forgiven by God are known only to Him, not to the human seeking forgiveness, but also this strange sense in the final lines that too much happiness is a kind of hubris.
So my sense after two viewings is that this is a pretty smart adaptation of Cymbeline. I’m not sure the ending completely captures the wave of forgiveness that sweeps through the last act of the play, and in the eyes of some bestows one of Shakespeare’s dying benedictions on this suffering world. Perhaps it’s a casualty of the spare, low-key approach, or perhaps it avoids a happiness that too competes with heaven. Over all, however, Almereyda and his cast and crew have done a great job of grappling with the play’s themes, and visually it is very strikingly composed. It looks like a keeper to me.