Monday, September 11, 2006

TIFF 2006: "MACBETH"

MACBETH
(Vanguard)
Australia, 109 minutes, 2006
Written by: Victoria Hill and Geoffrey Wright
Based upon the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by: Geoffrey Wright
Cast: Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme, Gary Sweet, Matt Doran, Steve Bastoni

Something wicked this way comes…again.

Officially regarded as 400 years old this very year, “Macbeth” is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and amongst his most nihilistic, psychological complex, and outrageously violent (though outdone by 'Titus Andronicus"), making it a natural for the big screen. Geoffrey (“Romper Stomper”) Wright’s re-telling of “the Scottish play” set in the Melbourne underworld is, according to a quick peek at the IMDB, no less than the 46th screen version (TV or feature) to appear in cinema’s comparatively young 100 years, varying wildly from Kurosawa’s poetic 1957 fuedal Japan transplant, to Polanski’s post-Manson Grand Guignol, to “Scotland P.A.”s burger joint-set oddity, to the Hindi “Maqbool”, all the way up to a currently in-production UK version that will also stage the tragedy in the criminal fringes.

It’s “full of sound and fury” all right— after an intriguing opening suggesting a trippy Jesse Franco approach, in which a trio of alluring young witches slink about in schoolgirl outfits and desecrate crypts as they set up the scenario, the palette shifts to gritty Scorsese textures as we move to the Melbourne Docklands where two leather-clad factions settle a score in a blaze of gunfire, with Macbeth (Worthington) and his gang surviving the fireworks as the victors.

Macbeth wins the respect of his “king” Duncan (Sweet), but resents that he rewards his son Malcolm (Doran) with a higher position. Macbeth is visited by the three mysterious women who portend that one day he will assume a position of great power. Macbeth confides this in his troubled wife (Hill, who co wrote the adaptation), who is drug-addicted and crippled with grief over the death of their child. Lady Macbeth urges her husband to kill Duncan so that he can take over the crime family and fulfill the prophecy. At first reluctant, the smitten Macbeth agrees to enact her murderous plan, murdering Duncan and his guards at their home and forcing Malcolm to run. The Macbeths assume control of Duncan’s empire from his remote, heavily-monitored estate and enjoy a new luxurious lifestyle, dispatching anyone who dares question them. Soon the remaining gang members are doubting the sanity of their leader, who is so overcome with paranoia that he hires a pair of assassins to eliminate his best friend MacDuff (Bastoni), and slaughter the innocent family of MacDuff (Hulme).

While I found the performances adequate and some of the updates and anachronisms clever (“Burnmam Wood to Dunsinane” is a diesel-fueled doozy), I couldn’t disregard the damned spot of redundancy as the melodrama hit the familiar beats, albeit gamely dolled up in snazzy designer dusters and gleaming gun metal and nicotine hazes against black-and-crimson goth d├ęcor.

Wright isn’t the first filmmaker to attempt to fashion a Cawdor nostra: “Joe Macbeth” did it in 1955 (“Hey Joe! There’s blood on my hands!”) and “Men Of Respect” memorably pitted John Turturro’s “Matt Battaglia” against Peter Boyle’s “Matt Duffy” in 1991 (“No man or woman born can do sh*t to me!”). Wright’s approach is as stone-faced as his lead (perma-sulk Worthington is better suited to front an emo band than a criminal empire) and could use a bit more fun (the dishy Weird sisters, whom Macbeth beds in this one, are a welcome touch).

In the end, what gangster-or-gangsta story isn’t already “Macbeth” in one form or another? -- everything from “Scarface” to “Juice” to the latest “Grand Theft Auto” franchise cops from its parable of absolute-power-corrupting-absolutely: here’s another up- and-comer of unbridled ambition who will stop at nothing to achieve success, who eventually inherits and/or betrays his way into becoming kingpin of a criminal empire, until greed, divided loyalties, and his own paranoia bring about an epic, blood-splattered undoing.

Comparison to fellow-Aussie Baz Luhrman’s “Romeo And Juliet” will be inevitable, but given the thematic differences, not to mention those budgetary (no major studio effort this one, Wright’s was shot on HD on limited funds in just 25 days), I’ll avoid the subject completely, other than to lament that while Luhrman’s kinetic update seemed to rejoice in its outrageous, and times deliriously far-reaching, interpretations of the text and imagery, Wright’s film turns logy after a rat-tat-tat first act that owes more to Michael Mann than PBS. Granted, much of the play concerns itself with the Lord and Lady’s respective paranoiac navel-gazing and night walks, but the drama here feels constrained by the cramped sets and oddly-dutiful fidelity to the original text.

Shakespeare purists might be pleased to read along, but with all the artillery, cell phones, security cameras, and Hummers paraded out before the end of act one, honoring the nuances of iambic pentameter seems a strangely constricting conceit. For all of its brazen nudity, drug-taking, and bloodshed, Wright's "Macbeth" delivers a frustratingly stodgy take on an otherwise timeless tale that’s instantly dated by the very things the filmmakers cynically thought would make it “relevant”.

-Robert J. Lewis
TIFF 2006