'Cymbeline': Venice Review

Bikers and Bard don't mix

Penn Badgley and upcoming "Fifty Shades of Grey" star Dakota Johnson play Shakespeare's lovers torn apart by unfolding violence in this modern-day retelling

VENICE – One of William Shakespeare’s late problem plays, Cymbeline requires a director to juggle multiple tones, blending comedy with swooning romance, vicious court treachery and an improbably happy ending in which the bad guys either turn noble or get conveniently dispatched. Michael Almereyda tackles that tricky challenge by treating the work as a suspenseful action drama, laughs be damned, enlisting an impressive name cast to help make his case. But primarily, 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.

Picked up by Lionsgate’s Grindstone Entertainment division in advance of its Venice Film Festival premiere, the film is Almereyda’s second foray into modern-day Shakespeare adaptations. In 2000 he cast Ethan Hawke as the troubled scion out to avenge his father’s death in Hamlet, set in turn-of-the-millennium New York. Hawke is on board again here, doing his mumblecore Shakespeare bit, and getting top billing in a secondary role.

Almereyda shifts the play’s passions and conflicts to small-town America, where a turf war is erupting between a criminal biker gang and the corrupt cops. The leader of the Briton Motorcycle Club, Cymbeline (Ed Harris), is seriously displeased when Imogen (Dakota Johnson), his beloved daughter from his first marriage, falls for Posthumus (Penn Badgley), an orphaned skater dude with great hair. While the two have secretly exchanged jewelry and vows, Cymbeline keeps them apart by banishing Posthumus and grounding Imogen.

Cymbeline’s devious Queen (Milla Jovovich) encourages her husband to stop paying off the police, headed by Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), thus ending years of peace between the two factions. With Posthumus out of the way, she plans to consolidate her power by hitching Cloten (Anton Yelchin), her arrogant son by a former husband, to Imogen. But she also has darker deeds in mind, stocking up on poison — or in this version, pills — in order to eliminate obstacles and speed Cloten’s path to the top.

Meanwhile, the exiled Posthumus accepts a challenge from cocky Iachimo (Hawke), who wagers he can seduce Imogen and prove she’s not quite as pure as her paramour thinks. Almereyda doesn’t even attempt to justify why Posthumus would take the bet. That development has always smacked more of a Shakespearean contrivance cooked up to fabricate misunderstandings than of anything grounded in plot logic. And the artificiality is even more glaring in the present day.

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 of this unnamed post-industrial town. (The setting is meant to evoke Scranton, Penn., but the film was shot in New York State.)

The issue becomes impossible to ignore as the drama wades into typically Shakespearean territory with the introduction of stolen princes raised outside the court, temporary death from a sleep potion and Imogen going incognito by passing herself off as a boy. And even within the outlaw culture of a biker gang, ordering a hit on someone based on vague evidence of infidelity just seems harsh.

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, yielding an underpowered mashup of Sons of Anarchy with Game of Thrones.

The reliance on propulsive techno beats to amp up tension suggests awareness that the story is not a natural fit for thriller treatment. That becomes particularly apparent in the concluding stretch, in which a slo-mo showdown prelude, a gratuitous bit of auto action and some anticlimactic gun violence give way to a round of confessions and explanations that seem to belong in an Agatha Christie murder-mystery wrap-up.

The obstructed romance element works better, even if it tends to get a little sidelined among all the plot complications. As the brooding dreamboat Posthumus, Badgley gives his scenes an emotional charge, while Johnson registers as sweet and tender, if perhaps too unformed to fully convey the ricochet of love and pain that Imogen experiences. (Martha Plimpton brought far more complexity to the role in a 2007 Broadway production.)

Nobody is given much scope to create a fully formed character, but the remaining cast is generally solid, managing the streamlined Shakespearean text with ease. And Jovovich does get to sing a nice smoky rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes.”

However, this is ultimately a misconceived project. Shakespeare screen updates tend to work best when they have something to say about our own era. Ralph Fiennes’ vigorous but sadly underappreciated take on another difficult play, Coriolanus, acquired fresh relevance in its Balkans setting. Joss Whedon’s breezy Much Ado About Nothing turned the twisty paths of love into a sophisticated modern sitcom.

Almereyda clearly wants to remind us we’re in contemporary America, flashing a shot of Barack Obama on a TV newscast and scattering around more tech gadgetry than an Apple store. But this film never holds water, let alone catches fire as a present-day tale of intrigue, love and war.

Production companies: Keep Your Head, Benaroya Pictures
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, John Leguizamo, Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Anton Yelchin, Delroy Lindo, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Bill Pullman, Peter Gerety, Kevin Corrigan, James Ransone, Spencer Treat Clark
Director: Michael Almereyda

Screenwriter: Michael Almereyda, adapted from William Shakespeare’s play
Producers: Michael Benaroya, Anthony Katagas, Michael Almereyda
Executive producers: Ben Sachs, Clayton Young, Prashant Shah
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Happy Massee
Costume designer: Katie Riley
Music: David Ludwig, Brian Senti
Editors: Barbara Tulliver, John Scott Cook
Sales: International Film Trust

No rating, 97 minutes