Michael Almereyda’s (Hamlet) latest film adaptation of a work of William Shakespeare, Cymbeline, has a lot going for it on the surface. Not only does it feature all of the flowery language and intricate, twisting plot elements that one would associate with a work that was penned by the Bard, but it also features an extensive ensemble cast that’s full of familiar faces, and more action than you can shake a stick at.
Almereyda has taken a pretty soap opera-heavy story about love and deceit, set in a world of ancient nobility, and plopped it right down in a modern drug war between a crew of corrupt cops and a gang of unruly bikers, he’s got big stars like Ethan Hawke, Penn Badgley, Dakota Johnson, Milla Jovovich, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Ed Harris, and a handful of others helping to bring it all to life, and he’s brought more car crashes, machine guns, and explosions to the table than anybody likely ever imagined they would see in an adaptation of a Shakespeare work. What’s not to like? Well, seeing as Cymbeline seems to be trying to be all things to all people, that lack of focus on a clear tone could result in there being quite a few things not to like. At least for the people who have to sell it to audiences.
While Almereyda’s new film boasts an impressive cast and a handful of thrilling-looking action scenarios, what it doesn’t yet have is a release date in the US, or even a distributor who’s signed on to bring the film to North America at all, and the reason it’s yet to be picked up could be evident right here in the movie’s new trailer. Take a look at this thing and explain to me exactly who the director was making this film for.
Several times during its production Cymbeline’s producers have described it as being akin to Sons of Anarchy, which probably isn’t a bad thing to be, considering how popular that FX series is at the moment. But one has to wonder how many Sons of Anarchy fans out there would be willing to watch a big screen story that looks like their favorite show, sure, but that also features flowery Shakespearian dialogue that they’d have to struggle to understand. This stuff can be pretty confusing to anyone who hasn’t taken a Shakespeare-heavy class any time recently, after all.
And, conversely, one has to wonder how many fans of Shakespeare’s dramatic works would be drawn to seeing a film that includes a bunch of shabby, leather-clad criminals engaging in violence and murder in order to decide who will get to sell the most drugs. Shakespeare’s works have always been beloved because of the way they combine high brow culture with low brow entertainment value, but the disparity between the two in this take on his material could just be too much for audiences to reconcile.
Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Shakespeare’s works being updated to having a modern setting. Almereyda already did the same thing when he made the Ethan Hawke-starring Hamlet. That film had a few advantages over this one as a commercial property though, like how it was still trying to appeal to an upper crust audience by telling a story about upper crust characters, it featured a still young and dreamy Hawke in its starring role, and it was adapting one of Shakespeare’s most popular works rather than one of his most obscure.
The same can be said for Baz Luhrmann’s popular take on the “Romeo & Juliet” story, Romeo + Juliet. While that one contained some of the same street-level violence and gunplay that this take on Cymbeline seems to focus on, it had the benefit of having the biggest teen heartthrob on the planet, Leonardo DiCaprio, as its star, it had the benefit of adapting probably the most famous play ever written, and the focus there was much more on the love story than it was on the crime and drugs. That all translated to plenty of tickets being sold to teenage girls.
Is it possible to make a movie that successfully combines Shakespearian dialogue with a biker aesthetic and a tone heavy with crime genre tropes? Yeah, probably. And Almereyda might have even done it with this film. Cymbeline’s trailer doesn’t make it look bad, after all, just different from what we’re used to. The addition of Ed Harris manning a machine gun might be exactly what a forgotten Shakespeare tragedy needs to be spruce it up and make it relevant in a way it’s never been before. In order for that to happen, audiences are going to have to see it though, and that’s going to take a distributor who’s confident in taking the risk that this is the film that could bridge the gap between fans of gritty crime dramas and fans of nights out at the theater. Is Cymbeline that movie? We won’t know until we try it, so come on, somebody sign a deal to at least get this thing out on VOD.