‘Cymbeline:’ ‘Sons of Anarchy’ meets Shakespeare

Published 10:12 am Saturday, March 28, 2015

by Lauren Bradshaw

I won’t pretend to be a Shakespearean scholar. In fact, before this film, the only thing I knew about “Cymbeline” was that it was one of Shakespeare’s more “meh” plays, so I have avoided it. And while the film adaptation of the story is well-acted and fairly entertaining (after I figured out what was going on), this is not “Romeo + Juliet.” For one, the story itself is one of Shakespeare’s least popular. Also, the “modernization” element of the story, involving a “Sons of Anarchy”-esque biker gang, was a bit of a stretch. But, overall this was a good introduction to one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, and I imagine fans of the bard’s work will enjoy finally seeing it on the big screen.

Unlike Shakespeare’s more popular plays, the storyline to “Cymbeline” is a bit convoluted. And unfortunately, the film version doesn’t help to clear any of that up. At one point, I paused the movie and read the play’s synopsis on Wikipedia, so I would have more of an idea of what was going on. I know Shakespeare is probably turning over in his grave, but hey, I was desperate. After I did that, things came more into focus, and I actually started to appreciate/understand what was going on in the film. I suggest you do that too if you are unfamiliar with the storyline.

There are two main conflicts in “Cymbeline.” The first political conflict involves King Cymbeline (Ed Harris), the leader of a motorcycle gang. Due to some bad advice from his wife (Milla Jovovich), he has decided to stop paying taxes to the Romans, and the Roman soldiers (police) have come to collect. A small war breaks out between the Briton motorcycle gang and the police for the money.

The second conflict involves the love life of Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen (Dakota Johnson). In typical fashion, she is supposed to marry for political reasons. However, she has fallen in love with a commoner named Posthumous (Penn Badgley) and marries him in secret. When her father finds out, he banishes Posthumous from the town. The queen also has her own secret plan to marry Imogen to her son (Anton Yelchin), then kill Cymbeline and Imogen, making him the new king.

That’s when the “fun” begins. In typical “men will be men” fashion, Posthumous’ frienemy Iachimo (Ethan Hawke) makes a bet that if he is able to seduce Imogen, Posthumous must give him Imogen’s ring. If he isn’t able to seal the deal, he will give Posthumous money and will submit to a duel. For some reason, Posthumous agrees to the terms. However, when Iachimo tries to seduce Imogen, she quickly rebuffs him, citing her love for Posthumous. But using his iPhone, Iachimo makes it look like the two slept together. A furious Posthumous wants Imogen to pay for her adultery, so he makes a plan to have her killed. But, like any Shakespearean play, things don’t always go according to plan.

I love a good modernized adaptation of Shakespeare. After all, “Romeo + Juliet” is one of my favorite movies. However where that movie excelled, portraying the classic tragedy to the more modern backdrop of gang wars in Verona Beach, the same did not happen with “Cymbeline.” While the utilization of modern technology, like Iachimo’s use of the iPhone, did make sense and even augmented the plot, other elements weren’t as necessary. For example, using the travails of a motorcycle gang as a setting for the story seemed like a bit of a stretch. The threatening nature of the motorcycle gang (and its leader), along with the characters’ cunning political maneuvering, are essential to the storyline. However, the characters aren’t given enough to do to make the stakes seem high and the danger realistic. There is too much going on in the plot to give many of the fantastic actors a chance to fully develop their characters. But maybe that is more a criticism of the play itself as opposed to the film adaptation.

“Cymbeline” certainly isn’t one of my favorite Shakespearean stories or adaptations, but I can imagine this film playing in English/drama classrooms for years to come. And on the bright side, now I can sound semi-intelligent when I reference a “Cymbeline”-esque situation in conversation. Not to mention, as a huge fan of Dakota Johnson, I won’t ever complain about seeing her in a movie and this role again shows what incredible range she has as an actress.

My Review: C

LAUREN BRADSHAW grew up in Courtland, graduated from Southampton Academy and doubled-majored in foreign affairs and history at the University of Virginia. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area and can be reached at flickchickdc@gmail.com