Shakespeare’s tragedy Cymbeline gets the modern treatment as a biker gang versus dirty cop war set in Manhattan.
Ed Harris is the titular drug dealer who leads his soldiers into deadly territory facing off with the corrupt police chief Caius Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and his band of men.
Cymbeline’s merciless fervour and explosive temper instil rightful fear in all who might cross him, and he is backed by well-armed followers.
Ethan Hawke is the tricky Iachimo who recklessly complicates people’s lives, and Penn Badgley and Dakota Johnson are Posthumus and Imogen, lovers on opposite sides of the fence whose despair leads to an unexpected outcome.
Cymbeline is interpreted as an ultra-violent “fairy tale” by filmmaker Michael Almereyda whose earlier modern riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet also starred Hawke. We spoke with Almereyda from New York.
I was thinking how incredibly violent the film is but it is taken from the play. We have not changed much in 400 years.
It’s not unusual for Shakespeare’s stories to have physical violence and emotional violence. It’s like a fairy tale – they tend to be violent but are about redemption and the great spirit of forgiveness that ties it together.
I found it moving and the antidote to the violence. The evil people collapse and die and the noble people survive and endure against all odds and people reunite and reclaim their lives and there is something moving about it. It mitigates violence.
Ethan Hawke seems to have a real capacity for delivering that beautiful language without forcing it.
Between Hamlet and the present moment he’s been very busy and he’s gone out of his way to do Shakespeare onstage. He just played Hotspur in Henry IV while he was prepping Macbeth and shooting Cymbeline.
He has developed a facility for Shakespeare. He played a double role in Winter’s Tale. It’s a hard won facility but he is fluid and confident and he has traveled a certain distance beyond for it. He was the first person I cast.
Dakota Johnson is really impressive. She handled the language and stood up to those veterans well.
It was an instinct to cast her and that was before Fifty Shades of Gray. I’d seen some of her other films and liked them. We sat down and talked and I saw in her rawness and instinct.
She wanted to do it and was passionate. During filming she was cast for Fifty Shades and that was the first time I’d ever had to deal with paparazzi on a set. She came through.
Fifty Shades was a juggernaut no matter what and I’m happy for her and I look forward to seeing what she will do in the future.
Shakespeare is occasionally retooled for film but why Cymbeline, the “problem” play?
I don’t think there is a better writer in the history of the world, he elevates and challenges us, there is meat on the bone and he brings more intensity and more poetry to it.
All of the actors had a passion for it and I think it was worthwhile. There was no pay, no money but it was an exciting challenge for them.
Are you on a mission to reintroduce Shakespeare the way Kenneth Branagh was?
No, there is no mission. Kenneth Branagh is more of a Shakespearean scholar and not a clumsy American. We sing the song our own way, we’re more amateurish perhaps but have the same passion.
That’s not the same as having a mission. I would like to do more but it really is a bunch of people in an abandoned mine playing music. It’s not standard but there is no wrong way, and we make it our own way.
Adapting Shakespeare is a risky business because the purists will be looking closely.
There are fewer purists than you might imagine. I had been very careful to avoid English people while making it. I stayed away from them. Only the location manager was English.
And the upshot of all that is that there is a tradition; the purists would say you can only perform Shakespeare with young boys playing women’s parts.
There are many ways to do Shakespeare that are acceptable and familiar and we were distilling the play in a way that was respectful. I’m showing it to the Shakespeare Society tonight (in New York) and they will love it. They will know the layers.
People who grumble are probably rigid about most things in life. I described it to kids in inner city schools, and they asked how you can do Shakespeare if you don’t have a British accent?
The great English actors have the conviction and play it from the gut and there is no wrong way.
Cymbeline: In theaters and VOD 3/13
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