Cymbeline is the misunderstood schoolchild of Shakespeare's plays, the misfit who speaks up at odd times and sometimes says the wrong thing, awkward in all kinds of obvious ways. It's a special-needs play, but the beauty of it is right there in its bones, not least because in it we can see the great playwright's life -- that is to say, his career -- flashing before his eyes. A scheming queen, a heroine who disguises herself as a boy, a pair of semi-star-crossed lovers, a potion that gives the illusion of sleep -- it's all there in Cymbeline, a kind of greatest-hits scrapbook, and the play that even those who claim to love Shakespeare are least likely to defend.
Michael Almereyda -- whose best-known movie is the bold and glittering 2000 Hamlet, a modern-day reimagining in which Ethan Hawke delivers some of the most famous lines in all of literature while prowling the "Action" aisle of a Blockbuster Video store -- clearly has deep feeling for this challenging, unloved late-career play. In his brazen and provocative adaptation, which debuted here in the Orrizonti section (the Venice equivalent of Cannes' Un Certain Regard), he challenges us to find some love for it too.
Almereyda's Cymbeline, as his Hamlet did, takes place in the present: Dakota Johnson -- star of the upcoming 50 Shades of Grey -- is Imogen, a defiant teenage princess in a tank top and cutoffs, who has pledged her heart to Penn Badgley's Posthumus, a lad of humble origins who gets from here to there on his skateboard. Imogen's stepmother, the Queen (Milla Jovovich, a kitty-cat she-devil who wears a tiara around the house), disapproves of the match: She has always assumed Imogen would wed her own son, Cloten (Anton Yelchin), thus cementing his position in the court. Imogen's father, Cymbeline (Ed Harris, looking damn fit in black leather), heads up the town's most powerful biker gang, and though he has always treated Posthumus as a son, it's easier for him to defer to his wife's wishes than to stand up for his own daughter's happiness. Meanwhile, troublemaker Iachimo (Hawke, half-teasing, half-sleazy, and always great fun to watch) makes a bet with Posthumus: He says he can prove that Imogen isn't as virtuous as her lovestruck swain believes her to be, and sets out to obtain photographic evidence, using the multipurpose tool that has replaced the Swiss Army Knife as the most useful thing that can fit in a pocket: a cell phone.
Almereyda has condensed and streamlined the play's labyrinthine and not-always-logical plot, because there would be no way to get it on film otherwise. This Cymbeline moves fast, and it can be a challenge to keep up, particularly given the story's mercurial tone shifts: It unfolds like a tragedy, gradually shedding all its armor until it winds up, naked and a little crazy, as something of a comedy. You don't have to love Shakespeare's Cymbeline to get swept up in the spirit of Almereyda's: With its shootouts, its subcurrents of tenderness and eroticism, its trick-or-treat mischief-making (skull masks, Halloween pumpkins, and a silvery tumble of Hershey's kisses all figure into the visual scheme), this adaptation is brash and inventive and more than a little wild. But all this madness has a purpose: As with Hamlet, Almereyda is most interested in testing and proving the resilience of Shakespeare, challenging us to see how it hold up in the modern universe.
In Almereyda's world, technology isn't the villain; it's just the parchment, a delivery system for both joy (a love letter in the form of a text message, for instance) and deceit: When Imogen sees images, on a tablet, of her beloved Posthumus betraying her with an assortment of party girls, she reads them as truth rather than the fiction they are. We're all guilty of looking without seeing. Are there any secrets in this maligned orphan of a play that we might have missed?