Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Macbeth: sordid, sworded, bearded, bloody but beautiful to watch (QFT from 2 October & other cinemas)

Gracious my lord, I should report what I see, but see not how to ...

For GSCE English Literature our class studied the play A Man for all Seasons, so other than an amateur performance of Macbeth in the now-defunct Arts Theatre on Botanic Avenue, I’ve little appreciation of ‘the Scottish play’ and no classic performances to measure director Justin Kurzel’s new cinematic production against. (The spoof MacBath from my student days doesn’t really help either, though it left me with a lasting memory of the line “Bubble bubble toilet trouble” …)

As the film starts, a few lines of text quickly scroll up the screen to introduce the historical context. And there’s the rub, to borrow a line from Hamlet: shifting a play from the stage to the silver screen means that while you can create fantastic locations and sets, individual lines of dialogue can only receive minor modernisation leaving their general phrasing unchanged and all sounding very unnatural.

If the actors speak their lines – rather than spitting them out with theatrical annunciation – then you pick up the mood but not the detail and significance of every last word. With a novel plot and a big cast of characters, the odds are against rare newbies in the Macbeth audience. (At times I wished for subtitles to unpack some of the denser dialogue, before settling back in my cinema seat and enjoying the moody visuals.)

In the history of tartan cinema, Scotland has never been mistier, had more snow-topped craggy ridges nor been windier. There’s barely a minute when the howling wind isn’t audible.

The prologue places Lady Macbeth (played by Marion Cotillard) and her husband (Michael Fassbender) at the desolate scene of their infant’s cremation.

Three witches – accompanied by a silent witch’s child – watch from afar. Prophecies are followed by brutal battle-scenes that cut in super slow motion close-ups with the wider-angled shaky handheld camera view of the cut and thrust of sworded combat.

Somebody’s going to pick up an Oscar for the spurting blood shots. Then it’s a matter of sexual tension at an altar, knives in the dark, coronation and a descent towards madness.

Star Wars marketing is everywhere at the moment. (You can even make a darling Darth Vader or cuddly Chewbacca in Build-a-Bear.) The science fiction franchise even extends to Lady Macbeth who sports a Princess Leia ‘cinnamon bun’ hairdo.

Is that a dagger well-trimmed beard I see before me?

There are anachronisms aplenty in this version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. While the warriors don’t take the time to wash the caked blood off their foreheads, Macbeth and his hirsute cohort pay rigorous attention to male grooming and the length of the hair on their faces and bonces.

By far the most interesting character on-screen is Lady Macbeth. Marion Cotillard has mastered dismissiveness and pulls off the portrayal of understated smugness and silent conniving with aplomb. Watch out for the dogs: no lifestyle magazine will be complete this autumn without a couple of hounds sitting at the bottom of a draughty castle’s four poster bed!

The final scenes are a visual masterpiece. Pay no attention to the hundreds of soldiers rooted to the ground in the mist who make no join in and hasten Macbeth’s dispatch. Instead enjoy the combat bathed in the red glow of burning shrub. It is beautiful. Even though colouration and layers of smoke and backdrops will have been added in afterwards, it’s a vision of one man’s hell that’s executed to perfection.

If you’re familiar with the play and can stomach some gore, check out this ambitious reimagining of the Scottish play. And if you want to be amazed at how special effects and harsh landscapes can be combined in cinematic success, a night out at Macbeth will be 113 minutes well spent.

Macbeth is being screened twice a day at the QFT from Friday 2 until Thursday 15 October and is also showing at the Odeon, some Moviehouse and Omniplex cinemas.

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