Macbeth, 109 mins, rated [TBA], opening in cinemas on 21 September 2006.


(This is my review as  published in the September 2006 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

There have been several filmed versions of the “Scottish play,” as superstitious theatre folk call Macbeth. The most famous are those directed by Orson Welles (1948), Roman Polanski (1971) and Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood, 1957). Variety also reports that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jennifer Connelly are to star in a version which begins filming later this year. That’s quite a list. Now comes the Australian version, directed by Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper, 1992, Metal Skin, 1994).

Described as “adapted from William Shakespeare’s play by Geoffrey Wright and Victoria Hill” (who also plays Lady Macbeth), this version is set in contemporary Melbourne in the midst of gangland wars, with Macbeth as an ambitious gang member. The film opens in the midst of a bleak Melbourne winter, and the three witches – they are teenage schoolgirls – dart between the headstones of a graveyard. It is such a bravura beginning that I gasped with pleasure and recalled my similar reaction to Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996).

We next see a drug deal go wrong, and a gunfight between rival gangs sets the scene for the political manoeuvring to follow. The characters speak Shakespeare’s language, but this is not a complete reproduction of the play. Much has been cut, much is shown but not spoken, and not all of the lines are delivered in the order they appear in the play. This Macbeth is highly cinematic, and though the missing text did not seem to create gaps in the narrative, the effect was slightly unsettling. I got the impression that the rest of the world spoke contemporary language, and only the Macbeth characters spoke Shakespearian argot. And some of the actors handle Shakespeare’s lines better than others. Lachy Hulme (Macduff), Steve Bastoni (Banquo) and an unrecognisable Gary Sweet (Duncan) are superb. Others are patchy. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that the film had only a 2-week rehearsal period and a 25-day shooting schedule.

Nevertheless, this is a very stylish film, with outdoor scenes shot in grey wintry tones occasionally enlivened by splashes of red, and with gorgeously moody interior scenes. However, the style does go a bit overboard in the costume design department. Unfortunately, Sam Worthington as Macbeth ends up in some rather outlandish outfits, producing snickering at the screening I attended.

This is also very violent film – but then of course Macbeth is a violent play. The Polanski Macbeth from 1971 is extremely violent too, and features several nude scenes, so there’s nothing new in that. As well as violence, there’s sex and drugs and rock & roll in the new Macbeth. Here’s what Sam Worthington said some time ago in an interview with Empire magazine (May 2006): “When Geoffrey [Wright] first described this movie to me, he said he wanted it to be the most bloody and explosive version of Macbeth you'll ever see; he wanted it to be banned – and it's shaping up to be exactly that. Imagine Bono crossed with a psychopathic killer, that's my inspiration for playing the character... Man, this whole film is like getting a bullet in the head.” Combine all that with the hand-held camerawork – sometimes on roller-blades – and it seems clear the film makers want to appeal to the music video crowd.

All of this sounds negative, but many things about the film appealed to me. The cleverness of the setting among Melbourne’s crime-lords goes a long way, although it might have helped to have a little more background. The use of the witches is inventive and engaging, and the adaptation is pretty well thought out. The location at Mount Macedon is striking, particularly the use of Alton, the mansion that plays the part of Dunsinane. It was a truly thrilling moment when Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane. So I could forgive the over-the-top costume design and the occasionally incongruous line delivery. On the whole, this is a valiant and stylish attempt to bring Macbeth to new audiences. I just hope they don’t laugh at Macbeth’s kilt!