Cymbeline (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Cymbeline (2015)

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Cymbeline is the head of a motorcycle club which keeps peace with the police department through frequent tribute.  But when Posthumus, a skilled member of Cymbeline's gang, and Imogen, Cymbeline's daughter, fall in love events are set in motion which may unseat the gang from its place of power.  Michael Almereyda directs and wrote this adaptation of William Shakespeare's play of the same name.

Til we part in the usual wayCymbeline is the damnedest experience, adapted from one of Shakespeare’s plays which has not been well-regarded over time and crafted into a beguiling mix of drama and absurdity. I can’t say I blame anyone if they are unable to adjust to the specific wavelength director Michael Almereyda is operating on. The tone doesn’t lend itself to easy classification, let alone consumption. But those who stick around will move quickly through perplexity into delight.

Almereyda has accomplished a tricky balancing act with Cymbeline, transferring the near self-parody of the original play into a coy drama tinged with commentary on our current infatuation with social media. Coy is really the only term which best describes the pact Almereyda has the audience forge with the screen as Imogen (Dakota Johnson) can scarcely remove her hand from her mouth when confronted by the ruggedly generic handsomeness of Posthumus (Penn Badgley). It’s affecting in that weird way which recalls a teenagers awkward first love, but through an adults lens see how silly it all is.

Please accept this mountain of Hershey's Kisses in tribute.

Please accept this mountain of Hershey's Kisses in tribute.

It’s a tone Almereyda strikes all throughout Cymbeline, even in the more dramatic encounters with the titular character now recast as a biker played by Ed Harris. Students of cinematic history would do well to remember Harris was in George Romero’s Knightriders almost 25 years ago. Harris is well accustomed to working in a partly comedic, absurd, and dramatic milieu which may shift at any moment. His utter dedication to Cymbeline’s noble outlaw status serves as a template for the rest of the film’s performances. If anyone winked, or delivered their lines with the slightest bit of self-awareness, the spell of Almereyda’s film would have been broken.

After all, it’s not often where we get treated to the sight of bikers in masquerade gear listening to Celtic folk at a dingy bar. But bikers, with their hierarchy and tendency to get into territorial disputes, are the perfect image to root Cymbeline in. They’re just deadly enough to be taken seriously, but not so serious that we can’t enjoy some near absurd sights as they go about their lives. Almereyda balances the tones by throwing the comedic and dramatic bits as far into stylistic hyperbole as possible. The dramatic elements are done in closeups, low angles, and slow motion to accentuate just how serious this all is. The comedic elements spring forth so suddenly - such as when Cymbeline’s son, played by Anton Yelchin, gets a chair knocked out from under him - that they hit their quick laugh then go right back to the dramatic posing.

The self-seriousness around the drama works surprisingly well when paired with the social media mistakes of Cymbeline. Used to be that miscommunication was created through a misheard remark or missed communication. Now an entire narrative can be crafted by taking someone’s life out of context online. In this way, Cymbeline almost functions as an antidote to scaremongering stories about how social media is cutting us off from “real communication”. At the end of the day, most people still want a warm body to lay with, and any miscommunication which results from social media is just one hurdle to cross in a happy relationship.

With these mismatched tones, wildly vacillating style, and serious performances I can’t stress just how surprised I was to be affected by all this. There’s a contract forged with the audience when they’re watching a play to accept some things may not be entirely there or accurate to tell the story. The suspension of disbelief afforded by the screen is much smaller due to the lack of social contract at a movie theater. But when Yelchin gets knocked out of the chair and then dumps a bag of what look like comically oversized aluminum wrapped chocolates as “tribute” to Rome (in this case police officers), the utter seriousness which everyone approaches the moment with makes it work.

Working with stage direction but a cineaste's eye,

Working with stage direction but a cineaste's eye, Almereyda crafts elegant compositions in each scene.

Once I settled into the groove I had a blast. Johnson has the trickiest role and displays some of the same trust in camp and direction as she projected in 50 Shades of Grey. She’s so convincing in her wide-eyed wonder of generic ruggedness that we’re both in on the joke and moved by the strength of her emotion. Ethan Hawke also stars, as he did in Almereyda’s take on Hamlet in 2000, and reminds us how good he is at selling poetic absurdity as well. He’s able to make the Shakespearean prose sound like it’s delivered right from a traditional production then shift it to sound like a modern-day streetwise hustler in the same sentence.

Cymbeline‘s balance doesn’t work all the time, there are one too many slow-motion shots which almost derail Almereyda’s film into disastrous came. But then Johnson turns to the screen with her wide eyes, Hawke delivers another emotionally spastic speech perfectly, or a sudden visual joke knocks Cymbeline back into alignment. I don’t expect many to find the same pleasure in Cymbeline I do, but I’ll have wonderful conversations with those who do.

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Tail - CymbelineCymbeline (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Michael Almereyda.
Starring Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, John Leguizamo, and Milla Jovovich.

Posted by Andrew

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