Surreal and au courant to a fault, “Cymbeline,” starring Ethan Hawke, Ed Harris, Milla Jovovich, Dakota Johnson and Penn Badgley, is a mash-up of social media shortcomings and Shakespearean tragedy that becomes as much a tale of cinematic ambition gone awry as anything the Bard intended.
Writer-director Michael Almereyda’s choice to translate one of the playwright’s less familiar works was a bold one. Its layers of deception rest on the manipulation of perception, which makes it ideal for recasting in an Instagram age with its ease of spreading misinformation.
None of this is much of a stretch for the director, who drew deserved praise for 2000’s “Hamlet,” which starred Hawke in the title role and used contemporary New York City as a staging ground.
Like Almereyda’s take on “Hamlet,” the language of Shakespeare is retained, though significantly pared. The plot, however, is very much there, and in a sense that is where the problems for the film begin. The political machinations and romantic intrigues are extensive and entangled from beginning to end.
The main power player is King Cymbeline (Harris), who heads the Briton motorcycle gang in a decaying American town that the director likens to Scranton, Pa. The King has decided to resist the Roman tax, with police official Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall) the chief collector.
On the romantic front, Cymbeline’s protégé is Posthumus (Badgley), a handsome but penniless skateboarder and the secret love of Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen (Johnson). His second wife, the Queen (Jovovich), is scheming to make a match between Imogen and her son Cloten (Anton Yelchin) instead.
Then out of left field the key villain, Iachimo (Hawke), enters. He shows up in town and bets Posthumus that he can deflower the virtuous but spirited Imogen in just one meeting. Posthumus thinks it’s easy money, and it is, but the selfie Iachimo takes of a sleeping Imogen sends him into a murderous rage.
One of the leather-jacketed gang members, Pisanio (John Leguizamo), a soft-hearted thug, is charged with the task of murdering Imogen. Instead he helps her fake death and escape the town disguised as a boy. She soon stumbles into and is saved by Belarius (Delroy Lindo) and his two blond, blue-eyed boys, who are actually the kidnapped sons of Cymbeline. And most of the complicated killing that is coming hasn’t started.
Even in contemporary English, it would be hard to keep track. As to the decision to stay with the Shakespearean text, as lyrical as it is, few of the actors beyond Hawke — so good with those tongue-twisting phrases — can manage it.
The look, however, is intriguing: The incriminating evidence on iPads and cellphones, the Britons in their jeans and leather jackets, the skateboarding hero, the Day of the Dead skeletal images seeded throughout. Shot against a backdrop of gritty urban decay, it all contributes to the movie’s magazine fashion spread look. Cinematography is handled by Tim Orr, with Happy Massee on production design and Catherine Riley on costumes.
Yet despite Almereyda’s invention in approaching this tawdry Shakespearean tale, he misfires badly. All that is left is the semblance of “Cymbeline.”