Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 19, 2015 11:52 am 
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Shakespeare on Quaaludes

In the young Australian director Justin Kurzel's new Macbeth, Shakespeare's familiar tragedy of greed, ambition, brutality, and comeuppance becomes a stew served up variously cooked, sometimes raw, sometimes overdone. The film is not without visual grandeur even if its violence is numbing and its dialogue becalmed. The cast is impressive: Fassbender, Cotillard, Thewlis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris. The wilds of Scotland are made the most of, and come off as awesome, vast, and shrouded attractively in in fog. They're matched by interiors so vast they take the breath away -- even if their scale sits ill with the primitivism of the rest. For what it's worth, there's a royal banquet with candles that briefly exudes a golden pre-Raphaelite glow. For his own reasons, Kurzel likes nearly everyone to speak with a heavy Scottish accent. There are some real ones too, which for the non-Brit would need subtitles. But the lines one tends to give up on, because they're all spoken so slowly, so under the breath, and so comatosely as to lose meaning. Kurzel likes to populate his scenes with a surprising number of teenagers and young boys. He also likes all his guys to have crew cuts. And he likes jump cuts that take a battle from cacophony to sudden silence, and he likes slow-mo in the wu xia mode.

Kurzel's previous The Snowtown Murders concerns a rural gang of torturers and murderers and his next one will be an entry in the Assassin's Creed franchise. To elevate the tone for Shakespeare, he seems to have mixed together sources eastern and western, combining Chinese martial arts à la Wong Kar Wai's Ashes of Time with Sergio Leone's high-concept Westerns. Both involve slow-mo and fanciful pacing. But dialogue that's retarded too much ceases to have meaning, especially when spoken with a brogue.

All well and good. Obviously the director favors action over words, and if all you care about is the visuals this version may please you. But Shakespeare still has to be contended with. The Bard's text has drifted to the bottom of the stew pot, from thence to float slowly up (perhaps influenced by all the slow-mo?) as from vast thick echoey deeps. Everybody -- except Cotillard -- talks in that deep, slow mumble. When Macbeth says "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow," we expect him to doze off. This is Shakespeare on Quaaludes, gone numb. The fanciful staging mixes grandeur and rough improvisation like Derek Jarman, who did such inventive and interesting things with Marlowe and Shakespeare's sonnets. But Kurzel's refried cinema lacks Jarman's freshness, and he's insensitive to the language. Let's face it: this is basically a disaster.

The celebrity casting is arresting, but it's part of what's uncooked. Certainly they make a handsome couple. Cotillard was understandably timorous about taking on one of the English language's great female roles. She performs bravely. But casting the sweetest, most sensitive, most beautiful woman in today's movies as one of literature's most evil females was a very odd choice. She is also, perhaps thankfully -- one can at least understand her -- the only cast member who pronounces her lines without the overlay of Scottish accent. Fassbender and Cotillard as Macbeth and Lady Madbeth float in separate films, both, it turns out, somehow wrongly cast. No sparks fly or chemistry happens -- nor even, what might also have worked, a chilly lack of connection. (The moments of kissing and even -- can it be? -- public sex just seem tasteless, the most glaring of various miscalculations.) And so even though you'd think Fassbender could have done the job, without a truly wicked and fiery lady behind him as a foil, his Macbeth never comes to life. He sweats, he weeps, he mumbles with the rest of them: he's floundering. And we haven't mentioned the Weird Sisters, who look like young welfare mothers and speak in a depressed monotone. Their scene and the grand but lifeless battle right at the beginning of this movie are what declare it, from the very start, to be doomed.

The battle is so artfully contrived there's hardly any movement in it, and certainly no swords connecting with flesh. But we get plenty of gore when Macbeth starts his path to the throne. Kurzel likes to show us the violence that Shakespeare meant to be off-stage. In the end this is a gore-fest. Unlike Kurosawa's Macbeth adaptation Throne of Blood, which has its own brilliantly staged final gore, worst of all there is no concluding shiver of tragedy, only a running out of steam, a pile-up of carcasses. Kurzel's Macbeth is a flashy visually arresting one that's been robbed of the play's soul and its meaning.

Macbeth, 113 mins., debuted at Cannes in May 2015; a few other festivals.French release in Nov. when some critics resorted, as Mike D'Angelo at Cannes almost did, to a joke about sound and fury signifying nothing. Limited US release 4 Dec., wider 11 Dec. 2015.

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