PBS // 2010 // 180 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // January 5th, 2011
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Performing Shakespeare well can be a challenge. Most of his lead characters require layers and depth that challenge the most seasoned actor. This can be an attraction and a bane for those who attempt it. Back in 2007 Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood performed in a modernized take on Macbeth, and now PBS has brought in director Rupert Goold to adapt that production to film.
The time appears to be the 1950s behind the iron curtain. Generals Macbeth (Patrick Stewart) and Banquo (Martin Turner) return victorious from battle to a twisted labyrinth of a war hospital. There they meet three nurses who are steeped in the occult. These weird sisters predict that Macbeth will become king and Banquo the father of kings.
At first Macbeth brushes this idea aside, but with prompting from his devious wife Lady Macbeth (Kate Fleetwood) he begins plotting the death of King Duncan (Paul Shelley). But once Macbeth's hands are bloodied it becomes impossible for him to trust anyone. His paranoia grows and with it his tyranny. His enemies begin to rally and come up with a plan to depose the monster. Meanwhile Macbeth consults the weird sisters again -- and their guidance assures him of his success. But with blood and madness all around him, is it only a matter of time before Macbeth falls from his gory throne.
You don't see Macbeth on film as often as you see versions of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet. For some reason Macbeth just doesn't have the same appeal to film makers. Don't know why, because this play is full of all kinds of things that would be cinematic if executed properly. You've got witches, evil spirits, visions of dread, large scale battles, ghosts and plenty of juicy monologues and dialogues for all.
Rupert Goold has a lot going for his production. First off is the key element of casting. Everyone here from Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood to the small but key parts of Malcolm (Scott Handy) and Duncan are at the top of their game, bringing plenty of depth to these roles. Of course Stewart is the main attraction and he is very good. I like how we see from the beginning that the idea of ruling appeals to him, even if the idea of murder doesn't. This hint of ambition is the seed from which the whole story must grow. As the violence spreads, so does his intensity and paranoia. Matching him is Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth. She plays the noblewoman as wicked from the get go, greedy for power and willing to push her husband to do the unthinkable. Of course Lady Macbeth is soon overwhelmed by the world she created and Fleetwood plays those key moments leading up to the sleepwalking scene with great skill.
Setting the story in this mythical 1950s in what appears to be a Soviet controlled country adds a bit of visual interest to the story. Goold keeps the setting industrial and sparse in nature. The war hospital where the story opens is appropriately battered and ruined. The end battle takes place in underground catacombs or a bunker underneath Dunsinane. Even the kitchen where several key scenes take place is utilitarian and cold. The few times you see any warmth is in the bedroom of Macbeth and his wife. But this scene is bathed in a sickly red light, warm but bloody. Little touches like the listening devices planted in the castle or the huge soviet style poster of Macbeth hanging in the banquet hall add an extra layer to the visuals.
Changing the character of Macbeth from a general turned king into a general turned dictator works well. His paranoia, guilt, and need to kill any that stand in his way fit many of the stories we've heard about petty leaders and their violent reigns.
I also like the idea of having the three witches appear during the film in various guises. First as nurses and later as cooks and servants. It feels like they are always watching and maybe manipulating events behind the scenes for their own amusement.
It appears that some minor editing of the play has occurred here, but nothing too noticeable. The whole tale flows well and moves along at a good pace. At around three hours I never felt like it was dragging. There was always a good performance or interesting visual around the corner.
The PBS presentation is solid in the audio and video arena. The blacks are nice and sharp, and that's important because this is a very dark film with lots of shadows and cavernous hallways.
When taking this successful stage version of Macbeth and transferring it into a film, some compromises and changes had to be made. This is not a filmed performance of the stage production, but an actual movie version. But not all the choices made work so well. I can imagine that they were more interesting on stage but Goold has never helmed a feature film before and I think some of that comes through.
My first issue was the tone of the film. You can make a lot of comparisons between this production and the 1995 Richard Loncraine production of Richard III with Ian McKellen in the lead. The settings are very similar as are the tales of ambition and murder. However Loncraine's movie had a aura of fantasy, an over the top nature, that fueled it's passion. Goold tries to balance realism with this same style. chilling moments between Macbeth's intense interview with the murderers, or his discussion of Banquo with his wife are filmed with a cool detachment. But the scenes with the witches or the battle sequences are filmed with hyperactive editing, over the top acting and vibrating camera. This change is so abrupt that it pulls the viewer right out of the film. Goold should have kept a more consistent tone, stylized or realistic and stuck with it.
Because this tone shift seeps into the performances. As good as Stewart and Fleetwood are, there are moments where they play things a bit broadly. This would be fine in a stage version, but it looks out of place during scenes where the camera is more intimate and the style is much more realistic. This disconnect keeps the story from being as effective as it could be.
The witches. This element of the play has been trouble for many of the versions I've seen of it. Their dialogue is so stylized and bordering on ridiculous that it presents a challenge to directors. How do you stage this without it looking silly? Goold did not find a good solution here. The idea of having the weird sisters appear as nurses and servants was intriguing. One of the main threads in Macbeth deals with fate. Does Macbeth have a choice in what he does? Or is he at the whim of fate guided by the witches and his wife? By having the witches appear throughout the film, it feels like Macbeth is powerless against these forces. But the witches are filmed and performed in such a way that they look silly. The stutter edits so popular in Japanese horror show up. There is funny writhing and face pulling. It just looks comical instead of creepy or scary. Any thematic ideas are driven from your mind as you giggle at the women dressed like nurses writhing all over a body bag.
Finally I'm not convinced that a modern take does helps this play. It is steeped in magic, bloody blades and talks of kings and successions. Because of all this in the dialogue it becomes hard to reconcile it with modern dress, pistols and naughty nurses. Maybe I'm old fashioned but I think that Macbeth needs to performed in a time period where you had to kill a person with your hands or your blade: your hands have to be bloodied. It's key to the story and adds impact to the catharsis at the end.
Macbeth is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, so I'm always excited to see a filmed version of it. Unfortunately this movie had too many flaws to make it to the top of the list, where Kurosawa's Throne of Blood currently sits. Still, Fleetwood and Steward do provide some excellent performances and some of the setting ideas are interesting and handled well. Fans of the Bard should check it out. Fans of Stewart will enjoy his work here, but anyone looking for a first time viewing of the play will likely come away confused rather than entranced.
Guilty of the style overshadowing the substance. Wicked indeed.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.77:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 180 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Macbeth