Thursday, September 07, 2006

Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth -- “bloody, bold, and resolute”

Macbeth. Adapted from William Shakespeare’s play by Geoffrey Wright and Victoria Hill. A film by Geoffrey Wright. Director of photography Will Gibson. Production designer David McKay. Costume designer Jane Johnston. Composer John Clifford White. (Additional music by Rowland S Howard, Devastations and others.) Sound designer Frank Lipson. Directed by Geoffrey Wright.

There’s much to admire in Geoffrey Wright’s plush film adaptation of Macbeth, which had its Australian premiere in Melbourne on Tuesday night. More importantly, there’s much to enjoy.

Sam Worthington as Macbeth (click on image to enlarge)

Doubtless, you’ve already heard that Wright and co-producer Victoria Hill (who also plays Lady Macbeth) have set the action in contemporary Melbourne, with Duncan more of a underworld king pin than royal King. The language, however, is not updated, though there are cuts and some reordering and the occasional reallocation of lines. (Sensibly, for example, Lady Macbeth gets to say “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious,/Loyal and neutral, in a moment?”, springing to the defence of her husband after the slaughter of Duncan and his guards.)

The countless and thorny plotting challenges that follow on from those initial decision are handled with unselfconscious ease, from the obvious -- Macbeth’s “brandish’d steel” is now gunmetal -- to the cute: Birnam’s woods come to Dunsinane on the back of the lumber truck used to ram raid the gates of the compound.

This common sense approach (as if there’s anything common about sense!) extends to the relationships within the play. I can’t think of a single production of the play or filmed adaptation -- and I’ve seen more than a dozen -- that has drawn attention to the fact that Duncan has children but no queen. That Banquo, likewise, is a single father.

Gary Sweet as Duncan (in overcoat, centre)
Lachy Hulme as Macduff (the tall guy, right)

Rather than despair of ever making the play comprehensible to a modern audience, Wright concentrates on subtle but telling details such as these.

Surprisingly, too, given his filmography to date -- Romper Stomper, Metal Skin and straight-to-video teen slasher Cherry Falls -- Wright’s Macbeth is less like Scarface than Gone in Sixty Seconds. Well, a very sexy and very gory Gone in Sixty Seconds.

There are a couple of reverential nods to Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible -- the use of the slow movement from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony (transcribed, here, for solo piano) and the backward rolling credits -- and maybe even to Roger Avary’s film of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction.

Not surprisingly, red is the dominant colour in Wright’s film... from the vampire-red bangs on Weird Sister 1 (an unrecognisable Chloe Armstrong) -- as the girls romp their desecrating way through a cemetery -- to the balletic zigzag of infrared laser sights on automatic weapons at the final slo-mo shoot-out. The wine-dark blush in the cheek, the fine blown-back mist of blood from a kill shot, the cellars...

Macbeth is a luscious looking film. The wintry blacks on the water and on the streets of Melbourne’s Docklands, under the tiny indigo lights of Bolte Bridge, are viscous and glossy. Dunsinane is a palatial, established home. It stinks of old money, not drug money. Timber, velvet, candle-light, paneling. The costumes and cars are gorgeous.

Acting is generally very strong. The casting of Mick Molloy as a garrote-wielding murderer might sound as eccentric and inexcusable as Kenneth Branagh casting Billy Crystal as a gravedigger -- or Robin Williams as Osric -- in his 1996 film of Hamlet, but Molloy’s is a mighty cameo, surly and truthful.

Victoria Hill is captivating as Lady Macbeth, as she must be. Hill is better as hostess and sleepwalking madwoman than kill coach, it must be said. But she certainly earns a co-star billing.

Victoria Hill as Lady Macbeth

Never one of my favourite actors, Lachy Hulme is compelling as Macduff. He towers over the rest of the cast, with the lone exception of Gary Sweet, as Duncan. In a play of massacres, Sweet is the only actor who doesn’t slaughter the sense of the script. Not a single syllable of it. (One can’t really count Cawdor’s “our father” on the plus side of the ledger -- “Nothing in his life/Became him like the leaving it” -- since his bit is not actually Shakespeare!)

This is hardly a new phenomenon in Australia, where hearing Shakespearean English used conversationally and meaningfully -- rather than as something to recite or parrot or declaim -- is still exasperatingly rare. But it’s a shame that less attention (apparently) was given to getting the words right -- getting the sense of the words right -- than capturing the perfect image here.

That description pretty much sums up Sam Worthington’s contribution to the project as well. Looks amazing, sounds ick. (Hmm... When I say he looks amazing, I’m not including that black leather kilt, okay?)

With the exception of the varied and rich musical score, the foley and fx are woeful. Cheap sounding. Cliched. Inexcusable.

There’s plenty more to be said, but further discussion would be at the expense of the many surprises -- both good and bad -- in this bloody, bold, and resolute film.

Photographs by John Tsiavis

This review was cross-posted at Sarsaparilla [archived here] where it provoked some vigorous discussion. Click here to check out the comments.

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Anonymous Cindy said...

Has anyone else had difficulty reading this page? I hit 'more' and got a whole lotta nothin.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Don’t know what happened, here Cindy. The original html was corrupted. Should be working now though.

12:16 AM  
Blogger TimT said...

How do you get the 'read more' function in a blogger post?

That's one web-codey function I'd love to know!

4:08 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

It's a bit clumsy -- I don't like the fact that it returns readers to the top of the post (don't know a way around this) -- and once it's installed in your template, you're pretty much committed to having folds in all of your posts (otherwise you get a post ending with more, user clicks and gets bugger all)... and, perhaps worst of all, you have to be very very careful when editing posts (do it in html) especially when cutting and pasting into a post... But how to do it is described here:

Or search for "How can I create expandable post summaries?"

Or follow this path:

Google Help >
Blogger Help >
Advanced Use >
Blogger Hacks

Good luck! (Save a copy of your old template, just in case!!)

7:16 PM  
Blogger TimT said...

Thanks, I'll try and check tonight.

Lady Macbeth looks hoooooot ...

9:04 PM  
Blogger Paul Martin said...

I thought this film was not too bad at all. Fortunately I saw a preview some weeks ago, and was able to make up my own mind without all the bagging of the critics affecting my judgement. The review I posted on the At The Movies website is as follows:

Wow, David and Margaret really savaged this film – undeservedly in my opinion. I must have seen a completely different film. By her use of the word ‘travesty’, I sensed that Margaret was biased with preconceptions of what Macbeth should be. Sure, the film departs from the bard in various ways, and that’s what interpretation is all about. I found the film gutsy and brutal, but not as brutal or scary as Polanski’s magnificent version three decades ago.

The film has a vitality to it that excites. The cinematography was well done and the acting credible. I thought it was the best acting that I’ve seen from Sam Worthington, and Victoria Hill played a good Lady Macbeth. Despite some weaknesses, this film takes some risks, is better than average and is definitely worth seeing.

Come on David and Margaret, you seem to be getting a bit ‘safe’ these days. So many mediocre, repetitive, middle-of-the-road films are getting 3 or 4 stars, and you shy away from well-made artistic risk-takers like The King, Macbeth and Em 4 Jay.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

Thanks Paul. Anthony Morris also gave the film a "four star" rave in a recent edition of The Big Issue (which I agreed with almost point for point). I'm told that Tom Ryan gave it a positive review too. But, yes, we're in the minority.

No shame in that. :|

4:17 PM  

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