Tuesday, August 11, 2009


One can argue that Shakespeare is the most important English writer. He lived and wrote 400 years ago, but his plays are still performed, his name is still known by pretty much everyone, people quote his lines constantly and he is the first cited source of millions of common words and phrases. Not bad for a funny looking bald guy from England.

However, the problem is that he wrote plays, and plays need to be performed. I realized this recently at a community performance of the Merry Wives of Windsor, which I had never actually liked until then. It worked because a good actor can make words live, and seeing the actions can make a sometimes obscure language come alive and make sense. So, naturally, a film of Shakespeare is a good idea, but somehow the transition gets shaky.

Take Macbeth. Specifically this Macbeth. Someone named Geoffrey Wright in Australia decided that the play needed to be turned into an ultra slick action thriller. Now, initially I was filled with doubt. In fact, opening the DVD envelope and seeing ultra-emo Sam Worthington holding a gun in a gothic setting made me think "Oh lord how bad is this going to be?"

It works better than you might think. No matter what he does, Wright can't ruin Shakespeare. The story is solid, the dialog is incongruous, but it remains fantastic, and the action scenes do fit in to the whole, as surprising as that may be.

If you don't know, Macbeth is about a man who witches convince will be king, and whose ambitious wife convinces to go around killing dudes in order to cement his power. It's better than that short, simplistic synopsis, but I'm not going to dwell on a summary of one of the worlds most famous plays. In short, it's a great story, and surprisingly difficult to ruin.

And believe me, Wright tries to ruin it.

The new slick, modern setting isn't a problem. Macbeth being about ultra cool drug dealers actually makes a great deal of sense, in a modern context, as royalty is irrelevant but drug dealing remains surprisingly feudal. The ultra slick shootout at the beginning works for the story, and is fairly well done as a whole. If Macbeth was supposed to be in the modern world, this is the setting it would make sense in.

The problems start with the camera, it's filmed in spookyvision. What's spookyvision, you ask? Well, the camera is unsteady, and will often be at a strange, inexplicable angle. It might suggest that the cameraman is drunk, but it's coupled with a soundtrack that does a horror movie dissonance thing. You expect ghosts and the voice of the Unsolved Mysteries guy to come at any moment. This is especially apparent when Lady Macbeth mourns a dead child, and sees his swingset on a foggy, backlit hill, which seems to be a questionable place for a play area.

There's also the matter of Wright deciding that Macbeth needed more gratuitous nudity. Of course, the original didn't have too much nudity, everyone was played by men, no boobs to be seen. Shocked at this outrage, Lady Macbeth - who is now a coke fiend - has her big final moment topless, breasts sashaying about. This does not compare to the Weird Sisters, originally ugly witches made into sexy ladies. Who Macbeth has sex with, in a scene so bizarre I had to laugh. Plus, for the ladies, Sam Worthington misplaces his shirt at least once, and has a gratuitous shower scene.

It takes a profoundly stupid director to make you realize the overall quality of the story. His detours are inconsistent, his added scenes don't usually work, apart from the opening gun battle, and as a whole it's amazing how many bad directorial decisions are made during the course of the film. Yet, it's good, because the story is good, and it's built on a quality foundation.

There's a reason Shakespeare has lived long after his contemporaries have faded from the popular consciousness. Ben Johnson, to most people, is just a steroid enthusiast and sprinter, but at the time he was a big gun in the world of theatre too. Shakespeare lives because no matter how incompetent the director, how mediocre the actors, and how much people try to ruin it, it still works. With any other base, this movie would have been awful. It could even be argued that it is awful. But it's got a good story, and no matter how many bad decisions are made, nothing can change that. I should hope other filmed versions are better though.

Also, the credits go in the opposite direction. Oh those silly Australians.

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