Justin Kurzel retains the intensity of Snowtown for his adaptation of Macbeth.
With previous adaptations by Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski, the Australian director hasn’t given himself an easy task. That being said, this film which seems to have come out of nowhere has achieved something great.
Strong and bloody violence, betrayal, murder, moral dilemma and manifestations of the supernatural do not let the film’s intensity dip during its 113 minutes of screen time. The opening scene with the witches is replaced by a baby boy being laid to rest by his parents. Kurzel explores repercussions of the couple’s inability to properly mourn their dead son. The couple’s childlessness is, in the context of the play, political; Macbeth does not have an heir to challenge Banquo’s descendants. The pertinence of such a bleak moment is powerfully felt; in this scene there is not one line of script, it chills right to the bone.
Kurzel has diagnosed Fassbender’s character with post-traumatic stress disorder which manifests in violent and unpredictable actions. Indeed this re-contextualisation answers some of the play’s mysteries – ‘Is this a dagger which I see before me?’ – as well as responding well to the play’s meditation on the passing of time. To a war-veteran, the traumatic past never properly leaves the present moment. Kurzel has taken an early modern play written about the King of Scotland who was crowned nearly a thousand years ago and made it seem as relevant as ever. Time is out of joint for the audience just as much as it is for Macbeth.
The majestic Skye film set deserves credit for the film’s success. Here is yet another Australian director enamoured with the Scottish landscape, and its majesty appropriate for the realm of tyrants whose unchecked ambition knows no limits. The landscape’s hostility is not just fictional; during filming Marion Cotillard almost disappeared into a bog and one crew member was physically lifted off their feet by the wind. It seems as if the decision to remain loyal to where the real Macbeth once presided comes at the expense of reawakening his violent desire for power over others.
Bloody, bold and resolute and seeming to come out of nowhere, this film is a must-see.
Carol Morley’s follow-up to her breakthrough hit Dreams of a Life tells the surreal story of a fainting pandemic that hit a English boarding school in 1969. The film is a take on familiar childhood demonic possession, but with a British kind of irony. The mass psychogenic illness mystery is genuine and convincing but left unresolved; the diagnosis of hysteria or the ‘wandering womb’ is unsatisfactory, if not ridiculous. This irony is demonstrated in no better scene than that which sees a passing cyclist heckle the group of huddled girls as ‘witches’ and then proceed to crash into a ditch.
The darkened dystopia is coloured by over-saturated soft-focus shots of girls strolling through the leafy Wordsworthian English countryside. Imagery is often superimposed on top of itself or distorted through the reflective surface of the lake as if the audience were also about to pass out. The phantasmagorical photography is so effective this world was seen as if the audience were looking up and out of a body of water, the composition of Millais’ Ophelia came to mind.
I was impressed by the casting; Maisie Williams (Lydia) was a strong lead for such a melodramatic film, working her spell on the audience with defiant unpredictability. The first time she fainted I felt her fall right out of the screen, although her twitching eye became quite irritating. But by no means did she steal the camera from any other actor. Strong performances came from those new to the screen, notably Florence Pugh. She plays Abbie, the sacrificial lamb taken to the slaughter for having lost her virginity in the backseat of a car. Abbie and Lydia’s intense female friendship is heartbreakingly beautiful, plunging the film into tragedy almost straight away.
At times the film felt more like physical theatre; the girls fainted like broken ballerinas seized by the presiding teenage angst and pscyho-sexual undertones of the film. There was something magnificently empowering about the girls’ rebellion against their parents and teachers, and, in fact, the repressed post-war generation of the fading 60s. The Maxine Peake fan I am, I admit I was disappointed with a lot of directing decisions to do with her character. Being familiar with her as the ruthless barrister of Silk or the gender-bending Prince of Denmark in Hamlet I thought the only time the role of weakened 1960s telly-addict-mother really suited her was the final scene when she got to leave the kitchen. The northern accent which has never been a problem in previous roles was replaced with some kind of Scottish-Welsh hybrid, and her difficulty with that was felt on screen.
That is the only minor criticism I have for this outstanding British drama. Although the film is beautiful and mesmerising, it is a difficult watch dealing with adolescent grief, knitting needle abortions, female sexual awakening and abandoned parents. There is something deeply personal about the film; its reflective surface lets you take from it what you will. It will continue to haunt me but I also feel compelled to watch it again. Morely is set to be a game changer and I look forward to whatever she does next.