Macbeth (2006)Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/13/07 15:35:08
There is an old saying among theater folk that it is bad luck to speak the name of William Shakespeare’s immortal Scottish tragedy “Macbeth” aloud–just the merest mention of the title is enough to bring disaster among those foolish enough to chance fate by uttering it aloud. It turns out that this so-called curse extends a bit further than that, at least in regards to its latest screen adaptation, a super-violent and modern-day take from Australian director Geoffrey Wright–anyone who dares to speak its name while standing at the head of the ticket line of a theater showing it is doomed to sit through one of the most turgid and pointless screen versions of the works of the Bard ever perpetrated.I will not go into a broad plot description on the assumption that if you are wise and learned enough to be reading this review, you have most likely either read the play for yourself or have at least seen it in one form or another. Although cut down, it does stick to the basic parameters of the plot for the most part. The central difference here is that while the characters are still speaking in iambic pentameter, the action has been relocated to contemporary Melbourne and Macbeth (Sam Worthington) is now an ambitious member of an organized crime family who, egged on by his power-mad wife (Victoria Hill, who also wrote the screenplay), kills the leader, Duncan, in an action that eventually leads to her madness and his downfall. Of course, it takes a while for you to realize that this really is a straightforward adaptation and not merely something “inspired” by the play since the opening sequence, a dialogue-free set-piece in which Macbeth and his men get into an extend shootout with a rival gang, is such an orgy of blood, bullets and pounding rock music that we are almost 12 minutes into the film before there is a real dialogue exchange. After that, the film generally veers between wan recitations of the key moments of the play and gory gun battles before arriving at a climax that seems more inspired by a text as hallowed as “Macbeth”–the finale of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface.”
There have, of course, been many attempts to retell the works of Shakespeare in a contemporary context but for the most part, the ones that have worked (such as “Forbidden Planet,” a sci-fi take on “The Tempest” and “Strange Brew,” a look at “Hamlet” through the beer-goggled eyes of Bob & Doug McKenzie) are the ones that kept the basic plot but rewrote the dialogue to suit the surroundings. With “Macbeth,” the retention of Shakespeare’s words pretty much sinks the film for a variety of reasons. For one, there doesn’t really seem to be any reason for the updating except for Wright’s desire to weld Tarantino-style bloodbaths to Shakespeare’s text in order to provide some easy shock value–although the violence may distract some people for a few minutes, they contribute about as much to our understanding of the themes of the story as an all-nude cast might have done for a production of “Twelfth Night.” Another problem is that none of the actors appear to be comfortable reciting the dialogue and since we don’t believe that they mean or even understand what they are saying, it is impossible to really get into the story. (The only scene that really works from a performance basis is Hill’s nice rendition of her monologue greeting Duncan before his fateful stay at Casa Macbeth.) And since it is impossible to get into the story, all that the typical viewer is liable to do instead is wonder why the hell all these Australians are walking around with Scottish names.
The only real fun to be had from the film is to see how bizarre and ridiculous Wright will get in his stagings of the best-known scenes. The first prophecy of the witches, for example, is staged in a disco in which the dry-ice machine has been turned on in order to provide the kind of fog-shrouded atmosphere that one doesn’t usually associate with Australia. The murder of Duncan is an over-the-top gorefest that plays more like a third-rate slasher film than anything else. Then there is Macbeth’s second-encounter with the witches–I won’t spoil it for you except to say that if you miss the film during its sure-to-be-brief theatrical run, you may well be able to catch it playing late at night on Cinemax before too long. Watching as these scenes played out in bewildering fashion, I began to try to imagine what Wright could possibly have in store for us with the play’s key scene, the breakdown of Lady Macbeth (“Out, damned spot!”) Alas, even those looking for high camp at this point are going to be disappointed because he inexplicably rushes through this central part of the text with such unseemly haste that you barely register it at all.Over the years, there have been some great film adaptations of “Macbeth”–Orson Welles did a wonderful low-budget rendition in 1948 that is among his most striking works and Roman Polanski’s bloody and powerful 1971 take (made when he was still reeling from the senseless murder of Sharon Tate) is one of the most horrifying movies I have ever seen. If Shakespeare had lived to see either of them, I have no doubt that he would have been impressed in the ways that those two directors brought out the important themes and ideas of the text while still giving the material a distinctive personal touch. If he were alive to see this version, however, I am guessing that he would be conferring with his lawyers in an effort to get his name removed from the credits. If that were to fail, I suspect that he would shrug his shoulders ruefully and remark “By the prickling of my thumbs/something crappy this way comes.”
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