Now showing in UK cinemas, the new film from Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright updates Shakespeare’s Scottish Play to gangland Melbourne. Gary Couzens reviews the Region 4 release from Palace Films.
In 1965 Polish critic Jan Kott published a book, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, which became one of the most influential works of literary criticism of its time. In the literal sense, of course Shakespeare isn’t our contemporary: he lived and died four centuries ago. He was a playwright rooted in his time and his country, writing in English (and English blank verse at that), whose works are performed in many languages around the world. His themes are universal, and he is a writer whose work invites more than most, free adaptations of his themes. Not all classic authors’ works welcome such treatment – do anything but a straight adaptation of Jane Austen’s works, and hear the purists’ outcry. (Case in point: Patricia Rozéma’s take on Mansfield Park, which to this non-purist was a more interesting film than many a more conventional take on Austen’s work, great novelist that she undoubtedly was.)
Shakespeare seems almost infinitely adaptable. He’s been set in space (Forbidden Planet, derived from The Tempest) and Kurosawa set him in Medieval Japan several times. With the present work, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare’s shortest play, we’ve had interesting takes on it from Orson Welles and Roman Polanski (the latter directly influenced by Kott’s book). Modern-dress versions include the 1955 Joe Macbeth and 1991’s Men of Respect, both setting the story against a background of modern gang warfare, a tactic also used by a 2004 Bollywood movie called Magbool.
Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 film does much the same, this time set in Melbourne, against a background of shootings and conspicuous consumption of substances both legal and otherwise. The screenplay, adapted by Wright and Victoria Hill (who also plays Lady Macbeth) uses a cut-down text, but retains Shakespeare’s dialogue. Macbeth (Sam Worthington) is the henchman of Duncan (Gary Sweet). Urged on by his ambitious wife, Macbeth plots and murders his way to the top. But retribution is not far away.
Ten years earlier, another Australian took one of Shakespeare’s plays and gave it a modern setting while retaining the verse. But there the result worked: two charismatic leads and Baz Luhrmann’s direction captured the spirit – if not the letter – of Shakespeare’s most romantic work. By contrast, this Macbeth falls flat on its face. The young cast seem awkward speaking Shakespeare’s words – and if you’re not familiar with the story, this can make it hard to follow. Meanwhile the film is wildly overdirected by Wright. Shooting in HD, he and his DP Will Gibson seem honour-bound not to let a plain-looking shot go past. The film begins with that grainy, contrasty, digital-graded look that’s rapidly becoming a cliché, for the opening scene where the three witches – dressed as schoolgirls – cavort in a cemetery. From then onwards, lush colours and some heavy backlighting take over, much of it filmed with a handheld camera. Tedium soon sets in.
Some of Wright and Hill’s updatings are amusing: see for instance how Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane this time round. Wright borrows from Polanski’s version in having Hill nude during Lady Macbeth’s “Out damned spot” scene, and Macbeth gets to have a four-way with the witches. There’s lots of violence, the nastiest scene (intentionally) being the killing of Macduff’s wife and child.
Geoffrey Wright is best known for his second feature Romper Stomper, and hasn’t really surpassed it in the fifteen years since. (Macbeth is only his third feature since then.) In my review of Romper Stomper I did suggest that Wright frequently indulges in technique for its own sake, without regard for its meaning, and there is nothing in Macbeth that made me change my mind.
Macbeth won AFI Awards for Jane Johnston’s costumes and David McKay’s production design. It was nominated for cinematography, John Clifford White’s music score and for sound.
Palace’s DVD is encoded for Region 4 only. It begins with that by now very familiar anti-piracy ad, which you can’t skip.
The transfer is anamorphic in a ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the intended 1.85:1. Given its digital origins, and considering how recent it is, it’s no surprise that the transfer looks very good, though just slightly softer than 35mm would have been. There are a lot of shadows and darkness in Gibson’s camerawork, and blacks are solid and shadow detail what it should be.
The 5.1 soundtrack announces itself from the outset, with a surround-sound thunderclap as the main title comes up. This is a very busy track, with much use of directional sound (including wind, witches’ voices and the like) and the subwoofer helping out with the many gunshots. Unfortunately there are no subtitles, which given my comments about the verse delivery above puts the hard-of-hearing at a major disadvantage.
The main extra is a generally excellent making-of documentary, “Making Macbeth” (30:58). Made up largely of interviews, it goes beyond the obvious by featuring people like the production and costume designers and the director of photography, as well as the director, producer and principal cast. Wright himself has quite a bit to say, though he doesn’t dominate. We learn that he pitched the film to his leading actor as “the most violent Australian film ever made”, though given the MA rating (a 15 in the UK) it’s dubious that he achieved that. A good few technical issues are discussed, such as the use of lighting given the film’s low budget.
The extras are completed by a “photogallery” (as it is called here) and trailers for five other DVDs distributed by Palace: Saw III, Marie Antoinette, Casino Royale, Irresistible and Hunt Angels. There is no trailer included for Macbeth itself, and a commentary with Wright and others would have been welcome.
Macbeth earns points for ambition but to my mind it’s a misfire. Some may like it more than I did, and no doubt others will hate it. Palace have released a decent DVD, with the picture and sound as it should be, though with a commentary and a trailer it might have been a better and more complete one.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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