- Anarchy: Ride or Die dir. by Michael Almereyda
The primary aim of most screen adaptations of early modern plays is to appeal to broad audiences, and one way to accomplish that goal is to address younger spectators. In this regard, Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) was a prime example: wise casting choices enabled exasperated passions to be forcefully played by young and talented actors in a contemporary context. Following in Luhrmann’s footsteps, Michael Almereyda also opted for two young actors for the roles of Posthumus and Imogen in his screen adaptation of Cymbeline, released under the title Anarchy: Ride or Die in the UK in September 2015 and six months earlier in the USA, first as Anarchy and then as Cymbeline. But Penn Badgley and Dakota Johnson’s acting in Almereyda’s film lacked sensibility and depth, partly due to an evident uneasiness with early modern English, which entirely spoiled the rendition of their love story. To further appeal to a younger audience, Philario, friend to Posthumus’s father in the original play, and Cloten, the son of the Queen, were also cast as young men, marking a sensible difference from the much more static and classical 1982 BBC adaptation by Elijah Moshinsky. However, aided by Posthumus’s juvenile weakness, the accent on the dramatic strength of his forbidden love for Imogen soon faded into a clear turn towards violence and brutality, aimed at foregrounding the upcoming battle between Britons and Romans.
The film’s opening explanatory musical introduction of characters and events was catchy and effective. Almereyda portrayed Cymbeline as the king of the Briton motorcycle club in an undefined American city where he had been allowed freely to traffic drugs thanks to bribes to the corrupt Roman Police Force. However, following the interference of the Queen, whose plan was to weaken and eventually kill Cymbeline and have her son Cloten married to the King’s daughter, the truce was annulled and a war began. At the same time, Cymbeline received the news of Imogen and Posthumus’s secret wedding, leading to the exile of the boy and the imprisonment of the girl.
The translation of the British monarchy and of the Roman Empire to an American background worked only partially: swords were replaced by guns, notebooks by iPads and iPhones, and letters by texts. A few hints at contemporary America were given by the TV in Belarius’s house broadcasting a speech by President Obama; by Posthumus’s easy purchase of a weapon; and by Guiderius’s Che Guevara t-shirt, later a cue for [End Page 144] Imogen’s creation of her male alter-ego. However, specific geographical references were neglected and Milford Haven, the supposed site of the secret encounter between the two lovers, was undistinctive.
As highlighted by the title, guns, drugs, roaring motorcycles, and leather jackets superseded the imagery connected to the romantic plot of the play, which was largely erased in favor of a darker and more deadly tone. While it might not have disoriented those who knew the play, this choice seemed likely to leave new “hearers” at a loss, having first been presented with a teen drama and then thrown into a violent and messy series of events. The main drawback of this approach lay in the complete erasure of scenes preparatory to the battle between Britons and Romans, and especially of Posthumus’s search for death and participation in the war with both armies. His speech at the beginning of the fifth act—showing us his repentance for accepting Iachimo’s wager to have Imogen’s loyalty tested, for buying his lies, and finally for asking Pisanio to murder her—was also omitted. The film only displayed Posthumus captured and quickly released by the Roman police, apparently owing to his valorous ancestry, after they had seen pictures of Cymbeline’s family and of Cloten’s head.
Cymbeline has posed problems of interpretation and genre definition over the years, but the effort involved in following an extreme combination of plots and genres and in tolerating the introduction of a deus ex...