Film - EIFF: Macbeth Unhinged

Macbeth Unhinged

Susan Omand watched a new film adaptation of a classic play at Edinburgh Film Festival but was it a case of Macbeth Unhinged or just broken...

Drawn in crisp black and white, Angus Macfadyen’s bold, strongly realised reimagining of the revered Scottish play transports Macbeth to the back of a limousine. A striking aesthetic makes for intriguing parallels between the source material and the contemporary setting. A gripping, claustrophobic noir, Macbeth Unhinged offers a fresh take on the timeless study of greed, corruption and ensuing descent into madness. 

Shakespeare is flavour of the month (ok, year) just now so I wasn’t surprised to see such a familiar title crop up as someone else took “the Scottish Play” on to make it their own. However when that someone is Angus Macfadyen (Robert the Bruce in Braveheart) who directed and stars in the film, I had high hopes for a unique, and suitably Scottish, take on it.

There is no point in me going into plot detail, you’ll either know the general gist of the story or you won’t and, if you don’t then I doubt you’d be interested in the film anyway. What matters here is the interpretation of it and, for me, there were bits that really worked and bits that really didn’t.

The casting was magnificent. The witches, a gang of three who reminded me very much of the pushy brash clique of girls at school that nobody really liked but everyone was slightly envious of anyway, had just the right level of mischief and they weren’t typecast as hags and harridans which was, in itself, refreshing. Staying with the female cast, Taylor Roberts was stunning as Lady Macbeth. You forget how strong a character Lady Macbeth actually is, never subservient unless it suits her, and Ms Roberts had a seductive and commanding presence, even when circumstances turned against her. And Macbeth himself? Glorious, glorious, glorious. Macfadyen has such an expressive face, there were periods of very little dialogue when his silent features spoke volumes and watching Macbeth’s descent into madness after the death of his rival was amazing.

Talking of sound, the music and sound design in the film is nothing short of spectacular! It was immensely clever to use reversed speech as part of the sound design for the witches, subliminally messing with your head because your brain wants to understand it. The original score by Mark Nicholls is stunning too, managing to be louchely decadent and edgily nerve-jangling at the same time. I don’t know how he did it, it was wonderfully unsettling. And all this unsettling sense got carried over into the film itself where Macfadyen makes, and carries off, a number of brave directorial decisions. There is a lot of extremely close camera work and having a face fill the cinema screen to the detriment of all else is a very powerful statement, adding hugely to the feeling of claustrophobia that was achieved by the absolute master stroke of setting the interior scenes in the back of a stretch Limousine. Genius.

So what didn’t work for me? The updating of image wasn’t era-specific enough for me. It was a 1940’s, 70’s,80’s, 21st century mish mash of a look. There were 1980‘s power suits with 40’s glam and 70’s punk with soldiers in ultramodern fatigues, it was too vague. The external locations too, although striking, could have been anywhere with the broken down graffiti’d walls of the clans vying with the generic skyscrapers and mansions of the rich and famous. But I kinda wanted it to be “somewhere” – London, New York even Italy. So it all lacked a sense of time and place to hang the story from for me. This was added to by the decision not to update the dialogue from the original Shakespearean language. Quite often the sharp contrast in historical language and modern setting works in film but here, since the modern was indistinct, it just felt like one ingredient too many thrown into the pot.

But the main thing that didn’t work for me? The thing that could have been astounding but in the end I was so disappointed with to the point that it spoiled the rest of it? Sadly, because they’re using it as the main unique selling point, it shouldn’t have been in black and white. It was unnecessary. No, more than that. The graffiti, the brashness of the witches, the sordid violence, the screaming madness – it was all crying out for overwhelming colour. I had hopes initially, when I noticed that the film flashed into colour for a moment with every gunshot, that the colour would be increased as the insanity developed but no. And these moments of colour were just not enough. Had it been done the other way, with everything going monochrome for a moment from vivid colour I think that would have worked better. It’s such a shame.

So, like the brief flashes of colour, there were only flashes of utter brilliance in what is otherwise, for me, a grey and generic adaptation. But go see it anyway – this is just my opinion and may end up being a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Image - London Flair
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