William Shakespeare, that most relevant of screenwriters from the grave, is back, this time inspiring “Macbeth,” contemporary-Australian style. As directed by “Romper Stomper” filmmaker Geoffrey Wright, the bard’s story of an ambitious king’s downfall is a stylish, visceral action flick for the classically inclined. Unfortunately, for all the bloodlust, terror and madness that play out,accompanied by Elizabethan phraseology, you feel little sense of Shakespeare or tragedy.
Maintaining the play’s original language while toying slightly with chronologies and significantly with cosmetic detail, the film is more Luhrmann than Olivier, as Shakespeare adaptations go. Wright and co-writer Victoria Hill have transformed Macbeth (Sam Worthington) from a throne-bound Scot into a Melbourne crime lord’s henchman, and the witches into bad-behaving schoolgirls. As in the original version, the latter spark murderous doings when prophesying that Macbeth will attain great power.
Urged by coke-snorting, ruthless Lady Macbeth (played, and slightly softened, by screenwriter Hill), Macbeth kills his boss, Duncan (Gary Sweet), takes over Duncan’s empire, and commits additional murders to eliminate opposition. Eventually, his surviving adversaries, led by Macduff (Lachy Hulme), join forces to topple him.
As one of Shakespeare’s shortest, sparest and bloodiest plays, “Macbeth” seems tailor-made for cinema, and its violence-begets-violence theme surely jibes with the criminal-underworld setting. And like Michael Almereyda’s “Hamlet” or Julie Taymor’s “Titus,” the film is novel and artful enough, in its creative approach to its material, to remain consistently intriguing.
Assisted by an impressive visual crew, Wright delivers a jazzy, edgy, fittingly ultra-violent universe of gangland chic, feudal gloom, misty forests, witchy orgies, drug-induced delusion, you name it. Not all of these elements are emotionally true to Shakespeare’s play, but there’s some terrific tonality going on.
It’s all surfaces, though.
Even if you don’t compare it to the superior “Macbeth” adaptations of Polanski and Kurosawa, filmmakers with a genius for bringing forth, respectively, the horror and human-nature aspects of their material, Wright’s film falls short in conveying the bard’s sense of tragedy. Macbeth is potentially an immensely affecting character, but he must convince us that he’s capable of greatness in order for his ruin to be devastating. As presented by Wright and portrayed by Worthington — who, like all of Wright’s actors, scores more points for voguish looks than dramatic potency — he doesn’t seem remotely extraordinary.
All of which amounts to a vivid, strange brew of a film that is never dull or simplistic. But Shakespearean, wrongly, it isn’t.
Starring Sam Worthington, Victoria Hill, Lachy Hulme, Gary Sweet
Adapted by Geoffrey Wright and Victoria Hill from the play by William Shakespeare
Directed by Geoffrey Wright
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes