’Cymbeline’: Some stars at ease with Shakespeare, some at sea

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If you’ve ever yearned to see Dakota “Fifty Shades of Grey” Johnson in one of William Shakespeare’s lesser and more convoluted works, here you go!

Also, who ARE you that you’ve yearned for that?

“Cymbeline” is routinely referred to as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays — and I gotta say, updating the setting from ancient Britain to present-day United States while changing the Brits and Romans to a motorcycle gang and a local police force, respectively? Not a help.

Director Michael Almereyda, who made a kick-butt modern adaptation of “Hamlet” in 2000, paints the screen with some impressive visuals while remaining largely faithful to the core elements of Shakespeare’s play (although it’s been condensed quite a bit). The problem is, the plot wavers from nearly indecipherable to semi-ridiculous to … I stopped caring.

Ed Harris, who plays a crime boss in “Run All Night,” also plays a crime boss here. He’s the “king” Cymbeline, head of an outlaw motorcycle gang manufacturing and selling drugs. The Roman Police Dept., led by Cauis Lucius (Vondie Curtis-Hall), is doing its best to keep the peace as the prospect of a turf war looms. The cops also are on the take. For now.

Harris, clad in leather jacket and speaking in measured tones, is effortlessly comfortable with the Shakespearean dialogue. The same can be said of Ethan Hawke’s Iachimo; Milla Jovovich as Cymbeline’s wife (the “queen”), and Delroy Lindo, among other veteran character actors.

The younger cast, not so much. Dakota Johnson tries hard but struggles as Imogen, daughter of the king and queen. The same could be said of the performance of Penn Badgley as her great love, Posthumus.  Anton Yelchin is at best OK as Imogen’s slimy half-brother Cloten.

As these young actors work their cell phones and take selfies and check the Internet while reciting lines penned in the early 17th century, we’re veering dangerously close to “Saturday Night Live” parody territory. (If “SNL” thought it was a good idea to goof with troublesome, relatively obscure Shakespeare, that is.)

Enraged when Imogen falls for Posthumus, Cymbeline banishes the lad. The scheming queen seizes on this opportunity to try to pair her son from a previous union to Imogen, and yeah that’s creepy because remember, Imogen and Cloten are half-siblings.

Iachimo bets Posthumus he can seduce Posthumus’ beloved Imogen. Meanwhile, Imogen chops her hair to pass herself off as a boy. There’s also the possibility the king has other children he never knew about. And someone is thought be dead, but maybe not. Yipes! It’s “Sons of Anarchy” meets “Games of Thrones” meets “Hamlet” meets something of a mess.

At times “Cymbeline” is actually riveting. In the film’s most haunting and beautiful scene, Jovovich delivers a stirring rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Dark Eyes” as the backdrop for a key montage.

Perhaps the whole movie would have worked as a musical of sorts. Perhaps not. I’m OK if nobody tries that.

[s3r star=1.5/4]

Lionsgate presents a film written and directed by Michael Almereyda, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Running time: 85 minutes. Rated R (for some violence). Opens Friday at AMC South Barrington 30 and on demand.

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