TIFF Report: Macbeth Review

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I'll be right upfront; Macbeth already had one strike against it before the film even started rolling. I have an innate dislike for almost any modern, literal adaptation of Shakespeare, or of any "classic" work for that matter. There's something about the disconnect of seeing modern folks in modern clothes who drive modern cars and live in modern houses speaking 17th century dialog. Some might find such an approach to be "novel", or that it's a good way to "update" classic works. I, on the other hand, find such an approach to be laughable at best, and more often than not, grating.

Upon reading that Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper) would be recasting Macbeth, one of the Bard's most famous plays, as an ultra-violent gangster action film, I had hopes that such an approach might have the necessary energy to transcend my initial doubts. After all, there's nothing a little cinematic violence can't improve. But alas, no such luck -- there's plenty of sound and fury to go around in Macbeth, but really nothing significant.

Macbeth is just further proof that modern Shakespeare adaptations always make for, as the festival description of Macbeth puts it, "torpid cinema". And as always, it all comes down to the disconnect.

If you've graduated from high school, you know the basic story. But Wright moves the tragedy's setting from Scotland to modern-day Melbourne. The castles are gone, replaced by gated estates. No horse here, just Hummers. And all of the swords have been dropped in favor of laser-sighted automatic weaponry.

Young Macbeth (Sam Worthington) is a hotheaded, pill-popping lieutenant in a powerful gang led by the crimelord Duncan (Gary Sweet). When Macbeth saves the gang's fortunes during a drug deal gone bad, he immediately curries favor with Duncan, who places him in a position of authority. However, a trio of nubile Catholic school girls, er, I mean, strange and powerful witches have told Macbeth some interesting prophecies concerning his underworld status.

Soon enough, Macbeth moves to ensure the prophecies come true. He and his wife, the power-hungry (and oh-so-slightly insane) Lady Macbeth, murder Duncan. Duncan's son Malcolm, fearing for his life, go on the run. And Macbeth begins solidifying his position at the top of the food chain. Which means executing everyone who poses a threat to his power. That, combined with his increasing madness and paranoia, causes the rest of the gang to start asking questions. Of course, it all begins spiraling downwards into madness and bloodshed, and everyone knows what happens in the end. If you were paying attention in 10th grade English, that is.

It's a powerful, enduring storyline, full of betrayal, fate, powerlust, and hubris -- the stuff of good drama. But while Wright may see the play as the gangster tale to end all gangster tales, moving the storyline to the modern era effectively robs it of much of its epic and tragic weight.

It is interesting to see how Wright updates some of the technical aspects of the story -- for example, how he gets modern Birnam Wood to move to modern Dunsinane Hill is rather clever. But still, there's a disconnect inherent to seeing heavily-armed gangsters pop out of Hummers in $2,000 suits in order to recite such lines as "He unseam'd him from the nave to the chops" and "Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it", a chasm-sized gap that is incredibly difficult to surmount, making it difficult to take anything you see on-screen seriously.

Additionally, the attempts to shoehorn the storyline's supernatural elements -- the witches, Lady Macbeth's call on dark powers, Macbeth's visions -- into an otherwise slickly modern tale often prove to be the movie's most unintentionally laughable moments. Take, for instance, the witches. In their Hot Topic-inspired schoolgirl outfits and tattooed bodies, they look more like rejected villains from Buffy The Vampire Slayer's first season than otherworldly harbingers of doom.

The hip, trendy approach may jazz some folks and I suppose that if it gets a couple of Grand Theft Auto-entranced kids to check out Shakespeare, it's not a total wash. However, give me the old-fashioned approach with Scottish castle halls, the antique swordplay, the offscreen violence, and the period costumes any day -- or if not that, works that use the play as starting point and go off in new directions (such as Vishal Bharadwaj's wonderful Maqbool). Anything instead of whatever mess results from trying to make the classics too contemporary for their own good.

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