Macbeth

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Even though no other writer has had their work adapted to film more than William Shakespeare, adapting his work to film is no easy task. This is especially true of those films that choose to work with Shakespeare’s original, 16th century dialog, as the Bard’s flowery prose can tax the most talented actors out there. There’s a lot to be said for any movie that endeavors to bring Shakespeare to life, but it is a challenge that many films fail to realize completely. Australian director Geoffrey Wright’s take on Macbeth is one of those films that works very hard to put a new twist on a Shakespearean classic, with mixed results.

Set in contemporary Melbourne, this telling of Macbeth casts Sam Worthington in the title role as a high-ranking soldier in the crime family led by Duncan (Gary Sweet). The mental stability of Macbeth is called into question at the onset, when he is visited by three witches while he mourns the death of his child. The witches tell Macbeth they have had a vision of him, a vision that involves him ruling of the kingdom in which he now serves. Motivated by her husband’s prophesized ascension to power, the drug-addled Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) hatches a plot to kill Duncan, and then pushes her husband into committing murder. With Duncan dead, Macbeth takes his place as leader of the crime family, but the suspicions of others and his own guilt-driven paranoia push him further and further into an abyss of insanity. Believing he can no longer trust his allies, Macbeth has Banquo (Steve Bastoni) killed, which leads to a full-on mental collapse. Realizing the depths to which her husband has sunk, Lady Macbeth also begins to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, those that were once loyal to Macbeth begin to plot against him, seeking revenge for the pile of dead bodies that keeps growing as Macbeth fights to stay in power.

With a screenplay adapted by Wright and co-star Victoria Hill, Macbeth uses dialog from Shakespeare’s play, despite the contemporary setting. Not an uncommon trick to be used by filmmakers, the mix of 16th century dialog and 21st century aesthetics of Wright’s film works sporadically, but at times the dichotomy between the two is so great it simply becomes distracting. Wright is determined to give the film a unique, stylish look, but the film’s low budget often seems to be working against a rather ambitious scope. More often than not, Macbeth seems like it wants to be Shakespeare meets Scarface, but all-too-often ends up coming across more like an Abel Ferrara flick crossed with an episode of Miami Vice.

Having directed Romper Stomper, I was hoping for something more from Wright than he delivers with Macbeth. There is so much energy put into the look of the film that the character and story seem to take a backseat. Sam Worthington’s performance as Macbeth is decent, but it lacks an emotional depth. As he appears in the film, Macbeth is power-hungry and crazy, but that’s about it. The same is true for Lady Macbeth, but the film never manages to convey the depth of his devotion to her. Ultimately, if I’m not mistaken, the main reason Macbeth kills Duncan is to please his emotionally suffering wife, an action that proves to be the undoing of both. But you never quite get the sense of the emotional disconnect that leaves Macbeth feeling the only way he can satisfy his wife is to kill another man.

More than anything else, Macbeth exists in a limbo of being not that bad, but not all that good either. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly where the film goes wrong, because it doesn’t seem to go wrong so much as it just never fully comes together. Compared to some of the other Shakespeare film adaptations of the last ten to twenty years, it never really stacks up to Kenneth Branagh’s films, or something like Richard III starring Ian McKellan, which was very successful in transplanting the story into another era. With dozens of other versions of Macbeth to choose from—including Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant, Japanese-set Throne of Blood from 1957—this is hardly the best or most definitive telling.

Shakespeare fans may be put off by the overall presentation of Macbeth, which seems to favor style over substance. On the other hand, those looking for a good gangster film are likely to find the material way over their head. Still, the story is easy enough to follow, even with the period dialog, and the film may hold a certain appeal to those looking for some sort of introduction to Shakespeare.

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