A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: Geoffrey Wright, 2006, Australia, 109mins
Cast: Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme
The challenge of ‘updating’ Shakespeare for a contemporary audience has presented itself to many filmmakers. Considered a notable success in this respect is William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) for being as much Shakespeare’s play as it was director Baz Luhrmann’s film. Another Australian director, similarly choosing to retain the playwright’s original dialogue but relocate the action to a latter-day setting, has this time taken on Macbeth: using the framework of this play, Geoffrey Wright has fashioned a contemporary riff on gang warfare that alludes to the recent assassinations involving Melbourne’s underworld.
Under the command of Macbeth (Worthington), loyal henchman to Melbourne crime lord Duncan, an attempted double-cross by another gang is bloodily suppressed. Rewarded for his heroism, Macbeth’s nevertheless indignant when Duncan rewards his own son, Malcolm, even more lavishly. Encountering three witches who prophesy that he’ll one day become leader of the syndicate, he’s prompted by his wife (Hill) to actively precipitate his ascension.
It seems there are two main ways to transpose Shakespeare’s work into a modern narrative: the first is to scrap ye olde English dialogue and explore the themes such that they possess a relevance to the new time frame; the second, and more pronounced, is to keep the original text and immerse it in the anachronistic environment. To justify this latter approach artistically surely the film’s aesthetic must diverge sufficiently from a ‘realistic’ narrative reality to warrant the preservation of a dialogue that’s conspicuously incongruous with the imagery. Referring back to Luhrmann’s adaptation, his opting for the aesthetic excess of postmodern camp created enough of a narrative hyperreality that the anachronism of the dialogue actually complemented the visuals.
For Macbeth Wright has attempted no such radical elision of the aural and the visual. Yet this seventeenth century play, based on eleventh century events, does lend itself well to a twenty-first century film influenced by twenty-first century incidents. The storyline is genuinely suited to the modern milieu of gangs and guns. Plus, by repositioning, redistributing, or simply excising some of Shakespeare’s dialogue and conflating certain characters, the plot has been streamlined to the film’s benefit insofar as character dynamics are more focused.
But while Macbeth boasts some shrewd (re)interpretations of the text for its modern setting (such as Macbeth’s first ‘encounter’ with the three witches being instigated by his ingesting of some pills), it also favours that conventional approach to performing Shakespearean dialogue whereby the actors growl and bark their lines. Such affected delivery only serves to spotlight the dialogue’s estrangement from the imagery, which leads to the question: what is the motivation for modernising Shakespeare and retaining his original dialogue? For it’s not enough to do so simply for its own sake – which would suggest creative lassitude – but instead to undertake it in a way that marries the spoken text to the graphic textuality through true innovation.
A word of advice, perhaps: not just twice but thrice should one think before adapting Shakespeare for a present-day setting.