Is this a review which I see before me, the cursor towards my hand? Judge Adam Arseneau hopes so.
Our reviews of Macbeth (1978) (published January 12th, 2005), Macbeth (2010) (published January 5th, 2011), Macbeth (1971) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published October 1st, 2014), and Macbeth (2015) (Blu-ray) (published February 29th, 2016) are also available.
Something wicked this way comes.
It sure does. And in DVD form.
From director Geoffery Wright (Romper Stomper) comes an Australian adaptation of a Shakespeare play six years too late to cash in on the gold rush: Macbeth, a "modernized" adaptation of the seminal play.
By "modernized," I mean "replace all swords with guns." Machine guns, no less! Take that, Baz!
Facts of the Case
This is Shakespeare's "Macbeth," but instead of being a telling of the downfall of the historical King of Scotland, takes places in modern-day Australia, with a bunch of gangsters and guns. That's…really all you need to know.
For the few who need more help: Macbeth (Sam Worthington, Hart's War) is a high-ranking gangster in a criminal organization with his eye on the top seat, currently held by Duncan. Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill, Dead End) encourages her husband and feeds his ego, but Macbeth is unable to materialize his lust for power, until he heeds the advice of three mysterious sisters, who give him a prophecy that he will be in charge of things soon enough. Taking the advice of the collective women in his life, Macbeth offs the boss and takes over the organization.
However, all is not well. Power and paranoia soon go to Macbeth's head, and after a new, dismal prophecy from the three sisters, begins to suspect that his co-gangster Macduff will soon make a play for power. In a fit of paranoia, he has a whole bunch of people killed, including Macduff's wife and children. Bad idea.
O! Full of scorpions is my mind, dear reader! Uninspired, boring, irritatingly glum, and perverse, Macbeth adapts Shakespeare by sticking Macbeth into a drug-addled crime family, takes away all clothes from the women characters, gives everybody a lot of guns and drugs, trims back the dialogue, and finally, finally, allows everyone to shoot and stab each other to death. If Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be well over four hundred years old…and murdering this film with his cold, zombie hands.
The logic, presumably went something like this: "an Australian adaptation of a Shakespeare play worked once before—why not again?" Why not indeed? Say what you want about Baz Luhrmann's kinetic adaptation of Romeo & Juliet, but the film had style and panache up the ying-yang, dancing and dazzling and (at times) running entirely on fumes of pure artistic vision and furious ego, but it made it to the finish line in what history has arguably considered an entirely satisfactory adaptation of the material. Sure, a bit on the flashy and hollow side, but true enough. This…this conglomeration of celluloid that is Macbeth does not even make it out of the starting gate before lurching on empty. Baz Luhrmann may have opened the door, but Geoffrey Wright ran into it full force.
Consider: within five minutes, we are treated to a slow-motion, Matrix-style shootout between ruffians in leather trenchcoats toting akimbo-style automatic machine guns for no discernible reason other than to do exactly that which has been previously stated. Perhaps a drug deal gone bad? Oh, well, no time for that, because Lady Macbeth starts taking off her shirt. Macbeth has an orgasmic pleasure in carnage and carnality that seems wholly inappropriate to the source material; ironic, considering the tone of the play is kind of grim, but that's how over-the-top we're talking here. A nonstop assault of pounding music, sex, drugs, and violence (with some Shakespeare sprinkled somewhere in there, I guess), Macbeth comes across like a pornographic exploitation film juxtaposed with an MTV music video. In of itself, such a film is not necessarily a bad thing to be—trashy movies are friends to DVD Verdict—but 'tis entirely the wrong thing to be when adapting Shakespeare! Where the play should be subtle, it shoots machine guns. Where the film should be poetic and tragic, it shoots machine guns. I guess, in a sense, there is a tragedy here, but probably not the kind envisioned by the director.
The film tries its darnedest to play the material grim-faced and straight, and, frustratingly, it almost works. These moments are few and far between, and only highlight the more aggravating problems with Macbeth, and as such are something of a mixed blessing. The acting is pretty banal, with the vast majority of the cast either underacting like a wooden log or hamming up the Shakespearian dialogue worse than a sixth-grade play. Macbeth, played by Sam Worthington, is the best of the lot—his unshaven, grim-faced pallor actually suits the part, and his coked-out trip into madness and a whole lot of machine-gun fire jives just about as much as it could possibly could. Even the weird Scarface-esque adaptation of the material, setting Macbeth in an organized crime setting, almost makes sense at times—during the more grisly moments, you almost forget about the literary abomination aspects of Macbeth and enjoy the drama, in part because the dialogue is so sparse. Much of the play is stripped away, replaced by silent pantomimes of action and betrayal, and you kind of get into a nice action film groove now and again. Alas, someone opens their mouth and spoils the illusion.
An ambitious, but totally wonky adaptation, Macbeth has way too much interest in making a pornographic action film, and far too little interest in making a theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare. Herein lies the ineffable problem that can not be overcome, despite occasional moments of cohesiveness or coolness. Poor William shouldn't have to take a back seat to 20-minute orgiastic gunfights. I mean, the Weird Sisters as teenage goth girls—who have a steamy orgy with Macbeth set to techno music? Come on. That's just wrong on so many levels, guys.
Macbeth got a half-decent transfer, at least. Black levels waver in terms of solidness, with some washed-out sequences here and there, but overall stay deep and dark. There is quite a lot of edge enhancement present, and some noticeable halo effects and compression artifacts dotting the transfer (especially in the red tones, which have a tendency to come all undone). Still, the grievances are minor overall; the presentation does the job, with a transfer that is clean, relatively sharp, and stylish. I liked the admittedly swank art direction, full of stainless steel and red velvet, like Dracula's apartment in uptown Manhattan, and the shaky hand-held camera work. For a low-budget feature, it could have looked a lot worse, you know?
The audio, likewise, also got a nice presentation. With the overemphasis on gunplay, it is at least pleasing to see that bullets have been given attention to detail in their environmental placing. Rear channels leap to life, tracing accurate paths of each stray hunk of lead, and it sounds quite bodacious. Bass response is pleasantly active, and dialogue is relatively clear, though the lack of subtitles is distressing. We've got Aussie accents and Shakespearian dialogue to decipherer here, people. Not including subtitles? Just plain mean. A stereo track is also included, which does everything the full 5.1 channel does, just less so. The score is dramatic and aggressive, heavy on the strings, but too often replaces itself with annoyingly pounding techno dance music.
Extras are tiny, but perhaps for the best—all we get is a theatrical trailer and a titchy "making of" featurette with cast and crew, discussing the film. The cast and crew even seem a bit nonplussed, having to find good things to discuss about Macbeth. Ironic, no?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ironically, much of Macbeth would have been salvageable had the scribes given up on the painfully overzsized task of modernizing Shakespeare, and simply done the story straight, or at the very least, as a "re-examination" of Shakespeare, not a literal adaptation. A gangster with a poisonous wife who goads him into knocking off the boss and rising to the top of the ranks, before ultimately getting his comeuppance in a hail of automatic gunfire? Sounds good to me. Shakespeare knew a timeless story when he saw one.
High-octane violence works as a film, and even weird, trippy hallucinogenic sex works as a film. The two together even sound good. But throw Shakespeare into the mix, and you be puttin' wheels upon a boat, laddie. As it stands, Macbeth is a well-intentioned disaster, but still a pretty big disaster. Had they excluded the Shakespearian adaptation, at best, one might have knocked Macbeth for being derivative and unoriginal, but at least the film would have spared itself its ultimate, horrifyingly embarrassing fate of mucking up a classic of literature.
Do you like pointless gunfights? How about badly acted Shakespeare in Aussie accents? Lots of sex and excessive nakedness?
Good! Whew. Here, I found your DVD. You must have dropped it. Please, take it back now.
Please? Please take it back? Hey, where are you going?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Union Station Media
• "Making Of" Featurette
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