‘Cymbeline,’ Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet,’ and Why Shakespeare Is So Hard to Adapt for the Screen

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When a director does Shakespeare today, it seems there are three options most commonly selected, each of which has its drawbacks. The first is to do a loyal interpretation, maintaining the original setting and time specified by the Bard (for if you’re the type that chooses loyalty, you also may use this insufferable term), but risking the adaptation seeming like an ostentatiously astute encapsulation of a period and lifestyle that’s now irrelevant. The second is to set it in the present day, underscoring the barbarism, archaism, and/or hilarity of a current societal norm by aligning it with Elizabethan text, but also risking bifurcating the text and its original meaning. The third is to set it somewhere and sometime else completely, avoiding the distraction of current day trappings (Lady Macbeth discovers Seinfeld emojis!), not to mention the equally distracting trappings of Elizabethan imitation (vocal fry is especially noticeable when it’s coming from a ruff-encased throat).

Director Michael Almereyda attempts option #2 in Cymbeline, out in select U.S. theaters today. For various reasons regarding unmet requirements of this approach, the film simply doesn’t work. But it does happen to be entirely reminiscent of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, which, in what might surely seem a woeful misstatement to some, is one of the most successful Shakespearean translations both to film and to modernity.

Both are romances, although Cymbeline, which is known officially as a Shakespearean romance, is actually far less romantic than Romeo and Juliet, which is technically dubbed a Shakespearean tragedy. Still, the latter has become Shakespeare’s, Wishbone‘s and high school English’s most iconic work, while the former has been critically panned and comparatively forgotten through the ages. Both this new Cymbeline and Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet adaptation modernize their narratives by playing them in crime-addled worlds of juxtaposed opulence and urban decay, with the dynastic homes in the plays translating to dens of corruption and gang activity in the films. Both allude to the romantic idolization of young celebrities by featuring rising young stars as romantic leads (Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio for R+J, 50 Shades’ Dakota Johnson and Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgley for Cymbeline). And both happen to co-star John Leguizamo — which, to be fair, may just be a welcome coincidence.

Cymbeline is largely underwhelming, its “romance” label contrasting dramatically with its relative sexlessness. It’s instructive to turn to Romeo + Juliet — whose modern tangentiality somehow stoked the film’s fiery central relationship — to fully understand why Almereyda’s film goes so awry. Firstly, there’s the sheer difficulty of making a likable film out of generally disliked source material — regardless of how fun its title is to say. Cymbeline has often been noted for its overstuffed plot. It’s as though, at the late point in Shakespeare’s career when it was written, the playwright was doing his own jocular Shakespearean revue. He wound so many of his afore-used tropes around each character, that, by the play’s end, they all, like the cover image of Madonna’s Rebel Heart (surely “the Bard” was going for that?), seemed goofily smooshed and silenced by too many threads.

Cymbeline begins with cursory romantic development, after which the romantic leads cease to share screen time until the end of the film. This is partially the play’s fault, and partially Almereyda’s. When doing original text Shakespeare, you’re obviously beholden to the play’s verbal structure, but you can nonverbally expand relationships: Luhrmann’s film elongated the courtship of Romeo and Juliet with that famously silly, yet totally sweet, scene where the two throw amorous regards at one another through a tank of tropical fish. Luhrmann also added a scene where the couple surreptitiously mack in an elevator. Then there’s a scene with the two lovers in bed, where DiCaprio and Danes hump and bask in the sunlight that pours in through their high-thread-count (damn one-percenter Capulets!) sex-sheet. As Imogen and Posthumus, Dakota Johnson and Penn Badgley are given no such breathing room to make viewers cherish that which they’ll soon lose.

And they do lose it, immediately: after the two secretly marry, Imogen’s father King Cymbeline (Ed Harris, his kingship substituted here for leadership of a motorcycle gang) finds out and banishes Posthumus, which sets off a course of conniving plots and misunderstandings. In exile, Posthumus meets sleazy Iachamo (Ethan Hawke), who bets him his wife is unfaithful, and that he can seduce her. The attempt fails, but Iachamo fabricates evidence (using an iPad) and ultimately convinces Posthumus, who decides Imogen must die.

Imogen gets news of Posthumus’ unforeseen homicidal wrath, cuts her hair, and goes into hiding in the country as a boy (humorlessly echoing just about every one of Shakespeare’s identity-confusion comedies, wherein wealthy women rurally embody manhood to avoid familial or romantic beef). Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s second wife, the Queen, (Milla Jovovich) plots against Imogen and Posthumus so her son from a previous marriage (Cloten, played by Anton Yelchin) can take the throne. Cloten sets out to kill Posthumus and, um, rape Imogen atop his body. (I’d here say “SPOILER ALERT” if this thing weren’t 400 years old). When his plan is stymied (getting decapitated will do that to you), things somehow further descend into madness. And yet, even with threats of rape, execution, uxoricide, Cymbeline resolves itself with a neat, happy ending: the lovers reunited, the haters dealt with accordingly.

Just as Imogen and Posthumus’ passions are forsaken for the hastening of the quite evidently convoluted plot, so too are the rest of the characters. The viewer does not form a closeness with any one of them, despite the attempts this modernization might make at heightened recognizability (the trailer cites a critic comparing it Sons of Anarchy mixed with Game of Thrones). No single scene — and no single character — is given enough time to attract us.

Critical reception for the film has been polarized: initially negative reviews have led to some almost condescending defenses of the film. Some have rightly commended its attempt at taking on a more obscure — more challenging — Shakespearean play. At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir lauds the film for its ambition despite its very apparently low budget: “But there’s a certain conceptual purity to this film – the purity of exploitation cinema and community theater, swirled into a strange combo – that leaves me indisposed to mockery.” I’m not exactly sure why, just because it’s Shakespeare, and just because Shakespeare is often performed by community theaters, critics should go light on this film because its poor-ish quality somehow recalls a beloved (?) tradition of poor-ish quality.

While Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet had a $14.5 million budget — not much, but presumably much more than Cymbeline — it’s not that film’s Hollywood polish that makes it a superior adaptation with a near-identical conceit. It’s its less arbitrary application of modern archetypes to Elizabethan characters, and most importantly, its acknowledgement of the intrinsic camp of contemporary Shakespeare.

One of the first scenes in Romeo + Juliet establishes a self-reflexive adaptors’ joke: in order to sensibly adhere to the text, Luhrmann’s lens zooms in on the characters’ guns, embossed with the word “Sword.” This gesture is a fun admission of the more farfetched aspects of modernization, and also actively melds the modern flourishes and the text. Similarly, the play’s prologue is delivered by a self-serious newscaster in a floating television screen. Another scene — the ball where Romeo and Juliet first meet — sees Romeo dressed as a knight and Juliet as an angel, drawing upon the cartoonish gender roles with which such romances are affiliated. In Cymbeline, however, fewer efforts are made to connect with the text through commentary on the modern setting, and so the biker-gang conceit splits from the text entirely. It makes us feel as though we’re needlessly watching and hearing two different works.

Camp is inexpensive: as John Waters’ early career showcased, it can be brought into the lowest-budget affairs. If you’re modernizing Shakespeare à la Sons of Anarchy, a sense of humor should be a prerequisite. Not drawing on the humor in the divide between the Elizabethan of the text and contemporary mores is missing a huge opportunity: it also makes it more difficult to see what more fundamental elements of the storytelling are wholly applicable to modern times. But as gun-battles brew in Cymbeline with cheap effects and little choreographic dynamism, we see that the film is addressing its low budget with compensatory gravity, as opposed to embracing the obvious absurdity of its conceit.

The more I think about the contrast, the stronger my appreciation for Luhrmann’s oft-ridiculed Romeo + Juliet becomes: I actually find it relatively impervious to scorn, as its self-deprecation anticipates criticism, enters a discourse with the challenges of adaptation — and then, putting all that aside, makes room to thoroughly move viewers. While Luhrmann’s pastiche-y aesthetic and temporally disorienting use of music failed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s emotional nuance and subtext in The Great Gatsby — and while the director’s style has grown increasingly predictable — it may have found its perfect mate in Shakespeare’s equally grandiose plots and effusive professions of character motivations. Luhrmann has been rightly critiqued for his over-aesthetization and attention to campy flourishes over character, but Shakespeare’s winding plots are so immutable that, in Romeo + Juliet, the story held up beautifully.

At this point, setting Shakespeare in the time in which it’s actually set may even seem as curious as making Lear, say, a Real Housewife (which, let’s be honest, actually wouldn’t really be all that curious). Because of the pitfalls of each of the forms of Shakespearean performance mentioned earlier, pretty much anyone directing Shakespeare needs to be able to justify their temporal and locational choice — otherwise it could be anywhere, anytime. In Cymbeline, this seems to be the case, and as the film mechanically hits each plot point, we fear that the vastness of a dull modernity could overshadow the text from which it so often breaks.