Director: Geoffrey Wright
Stars: Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Gary Sweet, Lachy Hulme
Second viewing, via DVD
It’s fascinating that in the short space of ten years, two Australian filmmakers have adapted William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. While the Bard’s play is an all-timer, and has been adapted in the past by master directors like Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, and Roman Polanski, film adaptations haven’t exactly been abundant. So the fact that two Australians would choose to steer it to the screen less than a decade apart is a weird anomaly, though not inexplicable. One could conjecture at length about the 400+ year old “Scottish” play’s relevance to contemporary Australian identity, the timelessness of its depiction of ambition, greed, conspiracy, regicide, guilt, and hubris… but really, it’s just a terrific, badass piece of source material.
I really wanted to like Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation of Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender. Kurzel’s a very good filmmaker – his 2011 film Snowtown, about the murders that transpired in the South Australian town of the same name, is exceptional – and I like that he committed to a very particular take on the source. I just wasn’t a fan of that relentlessly gridmark take. I also can’t help but question the casting of Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth: she’s a tremendous actress, but also possibly the least Scottish person on the planet, and that planet includes Jackie Chan, Deepak Chopra and Usain Bolt.
2006’s Macbeth, from Romper Stomper director Geoffrey Wright, is much more my speed. I first caught this film back during its theatrical release, and in the intervening decade had forgotten how much fun it is. Co-written by Wright and Lady Macbeth herself, Victoria Hill, the film preserves the Bard’s plot and dialogue but transfers the play’s action to the contemporary Melbourne underworld, where Macbeth (Sam Worthington) murders crime boss Duncan (Gary Sweet), is appointed head of his organised crime gang, and as per the conventions of Shakespearean tragedy endures an inevitable downfall.
Much of the pleasure of Wright’s adaptation comes from the ingenious ways it adapts Shakespeare’s source to modern day Melbourne’s criminal fraternity, the same turf depicted in the first of the popular Underbelly television series (unsurprisingly, 13 members of Macbeth’s cast would appear in that series or its offshoots). At the obvious surface level, drug deals and gun fights and car chases stand in for battles and swordfights, but other updates are more inventive. For example, the weird sisters are transformed into private schoolgirls, first seen defacing statues and graves in a cemetery like St Trinian’s rejects, and their first encounter with Macbeth is in an empty nightclub, accompanied by dry ice, dance music and disco lighting. There are other nice touches, like the way Wright and Hill interpret the dagger Macbeth hallucinates before slaying Duncan, or Birnam Wood’s arrival at Dunsinane. And things take an amusing turn into Scarface territory at film’s end. In the film’s DVD extras, Worthington recalls that “Geoffrey pitched it to me as the most violent Australian film ever made, and he wanted it to get banned”. Obviously Wright hasn’t seen Turkey Shoot, but he still gives it a go: Duncan’s murder is an especially stab-heavy, stab-happy experience.
But these are all broad strokes, and it is testament to the film’s overall accomplishment that its take on Macbeth works not only in these signature moments and scenes, but also in smaller moments, such as the nicely handled interaction between Lady Macduff (Kat Stewart) and her son (Louis Corbett), which feels entirely fresh and contemporary despite using Shakespeare’s language. Several asides featuring the Macbeths’ maid (Katherine Tonkin) – clearing the table following Macbeth’s dinner party hallucination, being unceremoniously shot at film’s end by Banquo’s son Fleance (Craig Stott) – also signify Wright and Hill’s savvy elaboration on their source play. Indeed, such is the magnetic, gravitational pull of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that many productions can be a slog whenever they’re not on stage or screen, but Wright’s film consistently engages even when its leads are absent.
However, and as expected, it’s strongest when they’re onscreen. In addition to forgetting how great the film is, I’d forgotten how great Sam Worthington is as the titular tragic hero. Like Jai Courtney, star of last week’s film Felony, Worthington has been maligned for bland, generic leading man roles in films like Avatar and Clash/Wrath of the Titans, but here he’s lean and hungry, unafraid to go broad where needed and comfortable delivering Shakespeare’s lines in a thick Australian brogue. It’s not deep acting, but it’s strong work. Co-writer Victoria Hill also delivers strong work as Lady Macbeth: deeply wounded and heavily anaesthetised at film’s start, newly re-energised after ambition invests her with the spark of life, and suitably raw and distraught at film’s end. Elsewhere in the cast, Lachy Hulme gives an imposing, muscular performance as Macduff, comedian Mick Molloy and brother John are fun as a pair of killers, and it’s delightful to hear Shakespeare’s early modern dialogue filtered through all those flat, nasally Australian cadences.
Summary: With the exception of Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which thoroughly transformed Shakespeare’s play into a new idiom both culturally and cinematically, most Macbeth films feel hamstrung as movies and unsatisfying as theatre, neither fish nor fowl (or foul and fair). Wright’s Macbeth, however, is pretty great: it looks, sounds and moves like a movie, it’s an absolute blast, and its rough edges are part of its skeezy charm…
Next week: Indigenous drama Beneath Clouds (2002)