Every generation has to rediscover Shakespeare for itself, and every new filmmaker who tries to help that process along has to first decide what part of the Bard's work is worth rediscovering: The universal themes? The resonant characters? The poetic language? The gender-swap jokes? In many ways, the film adaptations that keep the most or least of Shakespeare's material intact—Kenneth Branagh's slavish full-text Hamlet at one extreme, and the brainless Twelfth Night teen retread She's The Man at the other—have it easier than queasy, half-and-half remixes like Men Of Respect, Romeo + Juliet, or Geoffrey Wright's new Aussie crime adventure Macbeth. The process of finding a tone and style for a normal film is work enough without having to deal with gun-toting thugs in leather jackets standing around in grimy bars, trying to make their thees and thous roll trippingly off the tongue.
Opening in a graveyard, where a trio of teens in schoolgirl uniforms gleefully deface stone angels and smash stone crosses before getting down to the weird sisters' "When shall we three meet again?" speech, Wright and co-writer Victoria Hill stick close to Shakespeare's play, editing for length but keeping the structure intact and the language almost exact. The results are mixed, primarily due to the film's gothic-grunge chic: Re-envisioning the king Duncan as a modern Melbourne crime lord, with the untrustworthy Macbeth as an up-and-coming lieutenant, makes some story sense, but it intermittently just seems like an excuse to fill the screen with liquor, drugs, club lights and smoke machines, grubbily stylish men weighted down with laser-sighted guns, and tattooed naked girls. It's Macbeth by way of The Covenant, all brooding pretty-boys with emo eyes and hipster hair, standing around in gauzily decorated rich-kid boudoirs in the dead of night, and at times, it's too overblown to take seriously.
But Wright directs it with straight-faced conviction, and while some of the cast members are stilted (while others just seem stilted because they're projecting the kind of macho that counts facial expressions as a weakness), most, including Sam Worthington as Macbeth and Hill as his debauched cokehead wife, throw themselves passionately into their roles. The grainy high-def video and the over-reliance on bland medium shots sometimes makes this look like Macbeth on a budget, shot by a talented drama club with excellent access to prop guns and blood squibs. But when Macbeth wails "Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires," all the underlit gloom and underworld gloss suddenly seem like the most appropriate possible setting for this story.