Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

#22. Macbeth (1996)

Geoffrey Wright’s Macbeth (1996) very much looks like the 1990s when it was made. Lots of shabby European décor, retro rock instrumentals, foppish couture, and a well-oiled Bohemian sensibility at the fringes. The kingdom of Scotland is imagined as gang warfare, complete with prostitutes and drugs, in Australia.

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The weird sisters first appear as redheaded teenage girls in the archly preppy raiment of school uniforms while vandalizing a graveyard.

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Australian accents work surprisingly well with Shakespearean language—at least as well as Scottish accents—at least with this cast.

Sam Worthington (later the star of that forgettable box office juggernaut, Avatar) lends a youthful, grungy violence to the role of Macbeth. Victoria Hill is elegantly elegiac as Lady Macbeth.

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That Mr. and Mrs. Mackers are portrayed as partakers of drugs make, for me, anyway, their abominable conduct more comprehensible and engrossing. When Macbeth goes to report Duncan’s arrival to his wife, he finds her zonked out in the tub like a drowned corpse, and his gentleness and concern for her makes their tragedy seems already poignant, in a way that the sobering earlier scene, of her mourning at the grave of her son, does not. He cannot help her grief before carved marble, whereas he can rouse her from her careless ablutions, as someone himself experienced with drugs, with no judgment against her, with no wish to interfere with whatever assuages her grief.

Macbeth 1996 8The puzzling prophecy of the witches occurs alone (no Banquo) with Macbeth high and drunk, on a befogged dance floor, with great erotic overtones. The sense that these women might be hallucinations seems more plausible.

Macbeth 1996 9Duncan’s celebratory visit to Macbeth’s household, as well, proves a dissolute party that makes the lapses of security and judgement all the more believable. When the weird sisters insist that if he wants to hear more prophecies from them then he’ll have to drink the sick potion they are drinking, well, of course he will.

Macbeth 1996 10Macbeth’s eventual mental breakdown will seem appropriately twiggy, like a rock star who has pushed his system too far.

While the weird sisters are often slightly eroticized, often such psychological tinges are accompanied by things both disturbing and grotesque, as if the libidinal aspects of their character were part of their transgressiveness. In this version, however, the sisters are, ahem, highly eroticized, and the only disturbing thing about their sexuality is the very real possibility, in the world of this film, that they only exist in Macbeth’s mind. While Macbeth is tender with his wife, their relationship seems sexless while being quite intimate, as if their griefs should not be endangered by the risk of having another child. The ethereal, yet vivid sexual permissiveness of the weird sisters, then, seems related to Macbeth’s aspirations not just as a leader, but as a father.

Geoffrey Wright and Victoria Hill, who adapted the script together, also cleverly fuse Shakespeare’s action with current day culture without the overlap becoming a silly distraction (unlike the way such heavy-handed anachronisms do in Baz Lurhmann‘s or Michael Almereyda’s adaptations of the bard). I don’t want to give away too many details here. Use of surveillance cameras, televisions, and cell phones allow entrances and exits and exposition to be safely omitted.

MAcbeth 1996 6One of the concerns of any performance of Macbeth is how to simulate the siege of Scotland by Malcolm and Macduff’s forces while Mackers himself starts to go mad with waiting for his prophesied fate to snuff him out. In some performances, this comes off as a manic, yet somehow infinite spasming of the fog of war. This film is among the best adaptations in that regard. The siege is simplified to one mansion (the castle of any drug kingpin), and is depicted first in a slow motion sequence until Macduff has tracked the object of his vengeance down. (Unfortunately, the final battle occurs in a wine cellar, and much wine was spilled in that conflict.)

Macbeth 1996 5The feeling this sequence offers is an appropriately full one without the scenes just appearing busy.

Macbeth’s famous speech (“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day”) reminds me of precisely how I feel when I normally watch a performance Macbeth, but Geoffrey Wright and Victoria Hill, despite managing to add complexity and plot points with their interpretations, got this tragedy down to a blissful hour and forty-six minutes.

Macbeth 1996 12As I’ve said before, I don’t like Macbeth, as plays go, and I need to be tricked into liking every performance, but this one happens to be enchanting.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.