English Title: Macbeth

Country of Origin: Australia

Director: Geoffrey Wright

Producer(s): Martin Fabinyi

Screenplay: Geoffrey Wright, Victoria Hill

Cinematographer: Will Gibson

Editor: Jane Usher

Runtime: 109 minutes

Starring/Cast: Gary Sweet, Lachy Hulme, Victoria Hill, Matt Doran, Steve Bastoni

Year: 2006

Volume: Australasian


In contemporary Melbourne, gangland rivalries are running dangerously hot. Macbeth, acting on the orders of mob boss Duncan, destroys Macdonwald’s drug-trafficking gang. With his ally, Banquo, Macbeth kills Cawdor, whose club he takes over. When three young witches foretell the drug-fuddled Macbeth’s ascendancy in the gangland hierarchy, his ambition is fired. Encouraged by Lady Macbeth, he kills Duncan and sends two thugs to murder Banquo and his son Fleance, because the witches had prophesied that Banquo’s children would succeed the sonless Macbeth. Banquo is murdered but Fleance escapes. Macbeth, now irrevocably embarked on a murderous career to secure what his ambition has led him to grab, orders the unmotivated slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children. Finally, Macduff and Duncan’s son, Malcolm, lead a mob which surrounds Macbeth’s house and, in the gunfire that ensues, Macduff tracks Macbeth to the cellar of the house and stabs him. He dies by the corpse of Lady Macbeth, from whom he has become remote and whose sanity has collapsed under the strain of her complicity in Macbeth’s rise to power. As the witches had foretold, Fleance now assumes leadership of the mob and in the film’s last moments he walks off with Macduff.


Australian cinema has shown little interest in adapting Shakespeare to the screen – or, indeed, non-Australian works of any kind. It is interesting to speculate why this should be so. Surely it can’t be because they think Shakespeare irrelevant to antipodean life? It surely can’t be anything as narrow-visioned as that, when you consider all those other non-British countries that have filmed the very greatest plays: think of Russian Grigori Kosintzev’s stunning black-and-white Hamlet (1964), or the Japanese Throne of Blood (1957), Akira Kurosawa’s savage samurai version of Macbeth, or even the MGM sci-fi reworking of The Tempest as Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox, 1956). I draw attention to these merely to suggest that there is no reason why an Australian filmmaker should feel daunted by the prospect of Shakespeare, any more than Russian, Japanese, American, and many others have, and also no reason why a film adapted from Shakespeare can’t be relocated not just to another country but also to another genre.


Neil Armfield’s Twelfth Night (1986) is the only other modern Australian film derived from Shakespeare, and that was more or less a filming of his own stage production and received only very limited screening. Geoffrey Wright has relocated Shakespeare’s Macbeth from the warring clans of long-ago Scotland to the underworld of present-day Melbourne, with rival gangs seeking ascendancy in the local drug trade. Whereas Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954) transferred King Lear to an American western setting, drawing on the iconography and narrative motifs of the western genre, Wright has accommodated the drama of Shakespeare’s swift and complex tragedy to the generic mode of urban action thriller.


In one key sense he has been more daring than Dmytryk: he has retained Shakespeare’s blank verse in this new time and place. This is a major problem confronting the filmmaker who aspires to ‘capture’ Shakespeare on screen: the plays belong to a non-realist category of drama, and film has so accustomed us to a level of realistic depiction of the actual world that it demands quite a lot of its audience to accept characters speaking in iambic pentameters. Wright has had the cheek to do this. And not only to retain the verse, but, further, to have actors speak it with a range of Australian accents which are convincing in the context of the relocated drama. Perhaps some of the poetry is lost in the transfer, but by compensation, its essentially low-key delivery works well enough in realist vein. The actors give the verse a conversational quality that helps to effect the transition from the conventions of the drama to those of the screen’s greater and easier naturalism. In view of this one can forgive the odd improbability of, say, thuggish types addressing each other as ‘My lord’ or Macbeth’s wife somehow answering to the title of ‘Lady Macbeth’.


What essentially matters in the film, as in the play, is the personal drama of the corrupting potential of powerful ambition and this seems as much at home in the night streets and by-ways of Melbourne as in 12th-century Scotland, the predominant darkness and bloody deeds articulating in realist terms the play’s insistent images of night and blood. Wright’s and actor Sam Worthington’s Macbeth is – like Shakespeare’s – a nature divided against itself. From the graveyard opening where Macbeth’s sonless state is announced, there is a thread of allusion to fathers and sons which goes some distance to explaining the rift in Macbeth’s nature. The feeling between him and Lady Macbeth (Victoria Hill) is intensified by this opening image of shared grief, and there is pathos, if not perhaps tragedy, in the way they draw apart. Unusually for any performance of Macbeth, one of the scenes that stays in the mind is that between the doctor (Kim Gyngell) and Lady Macbeth’s housekeeper/maid (Katherine Tonkin), who give us necessary glimpses of lives not caught up in the pervasive bloodshed and darker impulses, as they attend her decline towards death. Their professional solicitude strikes an aptly realist note in a film which also aims to make the supernatural figures of the witches believable as figments of Macbeth’s increasingly disturbed mind.


The graveyard opening prefigures the theme of parents and children which Wright’s film stresses, through the resurgence of Duncan’s son Malcolm, through Macduff’s child brutally killed, and implied again in the final moment in which Macduff and Banquo’s son Fleance walk off into the dawn, suggestive of fragile hope for a future in which familial bonds may be more secure. Of course, not everything in this venturesome film works – some of the main action sequences, for instance, lack clarity – but Wright has shown again the feral talent at work which made his feature debut, Romper Stomper (1992), so properly unnerving an experience.


Author of this review: Brian McFarlane