Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth is likely the single most unpretentious Shakespeare film you will ever see. At no point does it ever pretend to be anything other than what it is: a low-budget Australian gangster film that just happens to use the plot and (some of) the dialogue of Shakespeare’s play. Whether or not this is a good thing depends on your viewpoint. On the one hand, it does in many ways massacre Shakespeare. On the other, it is a huge amount of fun, and improves after a glass or two of wine. It is not a film for a serious discussion of the play, but it is great entertainment.
Placing Macbeth in the context of gang wars is a divergence from the more common updating in which it is played in one of the great wars of the 20th century, but in many ways this choice makes greater sense. One of the best ways to explain the feudal system to someone is to have them watch The Godfather; likewise, those unfamiliar with Shakespeare but aware of the conventions of gangster movies will instantly grasp the political intricacies of the relationship among the characters in Macbeth. The domains of the thanes in the play become the nightclubs for which they are responsible; the rebellion is a drug deal gone wrong, masterminded by the owner of the Cawdor, who is apparently hoping to eliminate, if not Duncan, at least all of his high command. Macbeth’s instincts and fighting ability save the day and uncover the plot in a vicious shootout and pursuit. Yet Malcolm, who was in charge of the deal and is clearly incompetent, is still named as successor by Duncan, who is deeply relieved that his son survived. From there the plot takes its familiar route.
But this is not the beginning of the film, and what comes before is perhaps the most interesting of the choices made by the adapters. The witches are a trio of schoolgirls desecrating a graveyard, who pass by Macbeth and his wife as the latter mourn at the grave of their son. The relationship between the married pair is rooted in this sorrow, which has clearly overtaken Lady Macbeth’s mind. While waiting for Duncan to arrive at the Cawdor, Macbeth and Banquo get stoned, and Macbeth – meets? hallucinates? – the witches in the shape of the schoolgirls he saw earlier that day. Returning home, he finds Lady Macbeth half-drowned in the bathtub, the same bath in which she will much later be found with her wrists cut. It is to distract her that he tells her of the prophecies. When he comes back to announce Duncan’s visit, it is while high on cocaine that Lady Macbeth seduces him to the murder. Later, it is the sight of a family photo of the Macduffs, with their young son in the centre that truly pushes her into her suicidal spiral. Hill is superb as Lady Macbeth, stealing every scene she is in, whether as grief-stricken mother, stoned seductress, gracious and charming hostess, or in the horror of the realisation of what she and her husband have done. In fact, she is the only one of the cast one can readily envision in a more conventional production of the play.
She is hardly the only drug-addled character in the film. Banquo’s ‘insane root that takes the reason prisoner’ is omnipresent, and Macbeth’s increasing dementia as the plot progresses is certainly attributable to their use. Certainly the other characters’ response to his visions suggests that they simply think him stoned, and his disintegration prompts his abandonment by his followers. The cauldron scene becomes a pornographic fantasy, with the naked and nubile witches mounting and subjugating him. The question of the witches, present in every production – whether they are real or not, or whether they are simply emanations of Macbeth’s psyche, the actualisation of his desires, and in this case his giving in to his fantasies about the three schoolgirls he passed at the graveyard – is particularly brought to the fore in this telling. That they are merely drugged-fuelled dreams would seem clear, were it not for the opening scene, where the witches prepare to meet Macbeth.
This is not to imply that everything hangs together. Even with a text sliced to ribbons, occasionally stitched back together with a few lines of pastiche and often awkward alterations to make the words better match the 21st-century setting, it is impossible to make the original story and the story being told in this film completely match up. For instance, the gangsters in this film are under observation by the police, and it soon becomes obvious that they take the place of the English to whom Malcolm flies. But while it is not impossible to imagine the police quietly letting one group of gangsters take out another when Malcolm and Macduff take their revenge on Macbeth, it is less easy to understand why they would arm the former, let alone allow a teenaged boy to go along on the raid, and apparently not arrest anyone at the end. Likewise, it is somewhat difficult to accept Macduff as the ‘good guy’ when he is as much a mobster as anyone else. This would not necessarily be a problem – it is a common side-effect of mob movies – except that it sits uneasily with the original text. Likewise, one can question why Fleance has to come along on the final raid, sneak in, follow the wounded Macbeth as he climbs the stairs to die next to his wife’s body, and then instinctively shoot Lady Macbeth’s maid, who has not left the house – a moment that I’m afraid makes me laugh every time I see it.
Still, that laughter may be intentional, as the saving grace of the film is its refusal to take itself too seriously. It is common in modernised versions of Shakespeare’s plays to find an excuse for the constant use of certain words, the best example being how the guns in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet were seen to be made by the Sword company, but I have never seen so witty a use of the convention as when Malcolm and Macduff use a lumber truck to burst through the gates of Dunsinane. The truck, of course, is from the Birnam Timber company. Likewise there is the wink at Macbeth’s status as ‘the Scottish Play’ when, in preparation for what will clearly be his last fight, Macbeth dons a leather kilt and performs the most jaw-dropping Highland fling since Simon Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
For that matter, speaking of Macbeth’s vestimentary eccentricities, it should be noted that though the film is a fairly superficial take on the play, it has its moments of matching the original imagery. Famously, Macbeth is often referred to (in the play – only once in the film) as being someone wearing clothes too big for him. While this metaphor would be ridiculous if actualised, this Macbeth manages to achieve something of the same effect through Macbeth’s absolutely appalling taste in clothes. Particularly noticeable is the suit he wears at the party celebrating his nomination as gang leader. In contrast to the beautifully-dressed Duncan or the dapper Macduff, or even the jacket-and-tie-wearing Banquo, Macbeth decks himself in a ghastly, gaudy velvet suit that looks as though it were made from leftover carpeting, if not wallpaper, so cringe-inducing one is left amazed that anyone would think him an appropriate replacement for Duncan. Considering Lady Macbeth’s elegance, it is clear that she lets Macbeth choose his own clothes.
Slickly filmed, Macbeth often has a music-video feel to it, particularly in Macbeth’s encounters with the witches. (As the first takes place in a nightclub where the stoned Macbeth puts on the fake mist and the lightshow, this is hardly surprising.) This alternates with the cold and grey scenes of reality as Macbeth’s enemies gather against him. The final battle, with its hints of the finale of Scarface, is a slow-motion ballet, with the guns’ laser guides piercing through the mist of smoke grenades, inescapably heralding Macbeth’s doom. Though there is nothing eye-dropping or noticeably inventive in the cinematography, it never clashes with the tone of the adaptation, and the transitions between the various styles do not clash.
To say that this is not a purist’s version is a gross understatement; in fact, it is barely even a Coles Notes version. But as an adaptation of the story one has to admit that all the elements are there, including the Macbeths’ status as the happiest married couple in Shakespeare. It is not impossible to wish that the makers had gone all the way and changed the dialogue as well, in which case one would have an Australian gangster movie roughly equivalent to Kurosawa’s Shakespearean transformations (in terms of adaptation, not in terms of quality), but within the limitations they set themselves, it must be acknowledged that they succeed.