(Geoffrey Wright, Australia, 2006)


For about its first ten minutes, this Australian modernisation of Macbeth is captivating. The three witches – reconfigured as “Weird Sister” schoolgirl Goths – run around a graveyard, defacing tombstones. We are swiftly hurled into a bloody episode of turf war involving drugs and decadent clubs: guns blaze, bodies fall, and John Clifford White’s powerful rock score whips the editing along. But once the actors open their mouths to recite Shakespeare, the film goes completely to hell.


The problem is not the Aussie accents or the touches of vernacular expression. Nor, as previous inventive versions of the play have proved, is the recourse to movie genre itself unwarranted: the shifting-balance-of-power plot, driven by violence, lends itself irresistibly to the action/gangster template. Rather, for a film so relentlessly stylised on the levels of image and sound design, what is sorely missing is the sense of a confident, integrated ensemble of actors.


Most of the cast (Gary Sweet as Duncan is an exception) seem more intent on rattling off the text verbatim than making it comprehensible. They (especially Sam Worthington in the title role) perform in a kind of alienated, nervous trance that places undue emphasis on their uneasy postures and gestures. Touches of zaniness in the casting – such as comedians Mick Molloy and Kym Gyngell in straight parts – further muddle the overall tone. After half an hour of this barrage, one begins longing for the more conventional but also more lucid Shakespearean stylings of Kenneth Branagh.


After a frustrating period spent by director Geoffrey Wright in America – resulting only in the lacklustre teen-horror-thriller Cherry Falls (2000) – Macbeth might be viewed as his grab for some highbrow legitimacy. But this project is entirely consistent with the features that made his reputation: Romper Stomper (1992) was a neo-nazi skinhead transposition of Richard III, while Metal Skin (1994) anticipated the taste for spells, potions, orgies and sub-Satanic iconography.


The problems in Wright’s work are equally consistent: a tendency to sensationalism and hysteria (here embodied by Victoria Hill’s outré performance as Lady Macbeth), sometimes tipping over into inadvertent comedy; and an over-reliance on kinetic highpoints filched from the collected works of Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, John Woo and Abel Ferrara. Dramatic coherence and depth are replaced by a relentless procession of flashy clichés (children are luminous symbols of innocence, evil acts are always accompanied by booming Vincent Price-style cackling), while stylistic affectations (handheld camera, titled angles, exaggerated sound effects) are laid on without relief or modulation. And, although the original promotional campaign for Macbeth tried opportunistically to associate it with Melbourne’s “gangland wars” of contemporary times, Wright stays light years away from any social reality.


There are elements to admire. Although not in the league of Michael Almereyda’s updating of Hamlet (2000), the film makes clever use of modern technologies (surveillance cameras, mobile phones), and occasionally conjures an ingenious transposition of the original (Cumberland as a penthouse, a truck carrying “Burnham timber”). The best delivery of the text occurs when it is cut free and offered as voice-over.


The film’s shameless nod to music-video history – Macbeth wields a smoke machine on an abandoned nightclub dance floor – indicates not only the evident debt to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), but also the production input from Mushroom, one of Australia’s most successful music companies. A rock’n’roll Macbeth? As Orson Welles said long ago, any way of playing Shakespeare that works is valid and right. The tragedy of this Macbeth is that it just does not work.

© Adrian Martin June 2007

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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