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