Penn Badgley and Dakota Johnson reunite in Cymbeline.

I can’t get enough of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays” like Measure for Measure, The Winter’s Tale, and Cymbeline, and I’m always eager to see what directors on theater or film can make of these puzzling, hard-to-categorize works. Right now there’s a modern-dress version of the latter play at the AMC Grapevine Mills and on VOD, and I don’t mind saying I was excited to see it. Having seen it now, I also have to say it’s a failure.

The title character (Ed Harris) is the king of the Britons, a motorcycle gang in this film, who are gearing up to go to war with the Roman empire, here represented by a bunch of crooked cops. There’s just as much upheaval going on in Cymbeline’s home. His daughter Imogen (Dakota Johnson) has fallen for his orphaned protégé Posthumus (Penn Badgley) and refuses to submit to an arranged marriage to her stepbrother Cloten (Anton Yelchin). Sent into exile, Posthumus falls prey to the schemer Iachimo (Ethan Hawke), who bets that he can seduce Imogen and then goes to despicable lengths to win his wager.

Back in 2000, writer-director Michael Almereyda made a similar version of Hamlet that starred Hawke. This sprawling play filled with outrageous coincidences needs a director who can bring some clarity, but Almereyda isn’t interested in that. Instead, he wants to create an atmosphere of slouchy bohemian alienation. Occasionally it works. He doesn’t stint on the creepiness of the scene when Iachimo sneaks into Imogen’s bedroom while she sleeps and takes pictures of her naked body, and he introduces some of his own creepiness when Cloten masturbates while fantasizing about murdering Posthumus and raping Imogen. On a lighter note, when Imogen disguises herself as a boy and hides out with an outdoorsman (Delroy Lindo) and his sons (Spencer Treat Clark and James Ransone), she invents her alias “Fidele” from seeing one kid’s Ché Guevara t-shirt.

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Overall, though, the production feels sterile and stilted. If you’re wondering how the star of Fifty Shades of Grey does in a Shakespeare role, the answer is “not well,” though to be fair, most of the actors here come off as robotic and muffled. The approach suits John Leguizamo as Imogen’s loyal servant, and jowly, curly-haired Peter Gerety scores as a conscience-stricken veterinarian who makes poison for the use of the icy, murderous queen (Milla Jovovich). Still, why put Shakespeare on motorcycles, and why choose this particular play, if you’re not going to let the actors rip? Almereyda even cuts out that extraordinarily vivid line, when Posthumus feverishly imagines Imogen and Iachimo doing it: “Perchance he spoke not, but, / Like a full acorn’d boar, a German one, / Cried ‘O!’ and mounted.” The big shootout between the Britons and the cops is kept disappointingly offscreen, too. Shakespeare understood the audience-drawing power of violence and colorful language. This director understands neither.

[box_info] Cymbeline
Starring Dakota Johnson and Penn Badgley. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, based on William Shakespeare’s play.
Rated R.[/box_info]