No country for off-screen deaths

macbethI sometimes wonder what William Shakespeare would think of modern adaptations of his tragedies.  Patrick Stewart in a random Soviet dystopia, Ed Harris running a leather-clad biker gang for some reason, etc.  But then I remember that Shakespeare would probably be far more interested in seeing Bad Santa 2 or Office Christmas Party than a grimdark battle epic or a Michael Fassbender vehicle.  Seriously.  I dare you to find one work of Shakespeare that doesn’t contain a crude sexual innuendo.

Justin Kurzel’s version of the Scottish Play actually takes place in Scotland, which means OP out the window and inconsistent accents all over the place, but it strips away the self-awareness that so much of “filmed Shakespeare” has, and never do the characters wink at you, or otherwise seem like they know they’re in an adaptation.  On the other hand, the filmmakers know that you know, so if you’re not thoroughly familiar with the story, expect to feel like an alienated party guest.

Macbeth (Fassbender), supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis) in the civil war, receives a prophecy before returning home: he is the Thane of Cawdor and the true king, while the sons of Banquo (Paddy Considine) are future kings.  For context here: in the original text, the prophecy is spoken by three witches.  In Shakespeare’s time and place, witches would have been considered the most evil, antagonistic characters imaginable, maybe next to the Devil himself, thanks to general ignorance and superstition.  However, centuries later, when we can look at history more objectively (including the knowledge that “witches” were in fact healers, medicine women, and benevolent mediums), adaptation can serve old stories in intriguing ways.  Here, the women Macbeth sees are never called witches, and the “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, in which they reveal that they’re interfering only to cause mischief, is cut.  So is Macbeth hallucinating, then?  Has this toxic ambition been inside him all along?  Later, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) sees the women as she wanders to an inevitable conclusion, muttering “to bed, to bed, to bed.”  Do the women represent the spirits L.M. prays to once she is aware of the prophecy?  Do they represent exactly the kind of power, albeit impartial, ambitious people call upon to achieve violent ends?  Something to consider.  It’s not every day a new Shakespeare film brings new questions with it.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is one of the most authentic on film.  He’s used to playing complex characters full of internal conflict and despair, and isn’t afraid to embrace the side of Macbeth that isn’t the badass warrior we’re introduced to at the beginning.  The character first becomes a cartoon of himself, his kingly clothing too large for his body, creating deceptions that only he thinks are clever, and in the end, he transforms further into a wretched, confused shell of a person, left with nothing but his instinct for fighting, and even that melts away in his final moments.  You can see why it doesn’t take MacDuff (Sean Harris) and Malcolm (Jack Reynor) long to puzzle out what exactly happened to Duncan.  And when the dust clears, no one’s sad that this mad dog didn’t get a chance to explain himself.

Marion Cotillard, while slightly underused, is the film’s foundation.  Rather than portraying Lady Macbeth as “crazy,” which is easy, Cotillard’s scheming queen is instead increasingly plagued by depression (after losing a baby, which is hinted at in the original text), which later transmogrifies into guilt.  It’s an incredibly layered performance that not only sets an interesting bar for this kind of character, but allows us to believe Lady Macbeth and her husband as a couple.  The film gives us a look into their private relationship, and it becomes easy to believe that Macbeth would take her plan seriously.  Subsequently seeing her with a “What have I done?” look on her face creates a portrait of a real person experiencing a staggering shift in control, rather than the borderline sexist caricature we often get.

The rest of the cast is appropriately unremarkable – not in their performances, of course, but part of the idea is that the rest of these people are just trying to live their lives and do their jobs, for the most part.  Sean Harris’s MacDuff is notable for being the one who looks the most like a person from 5th-century Scotland might actually look, but my dark horse favorite is Elizabeth Debicki as Lady MacDuff.  She doesn’t get much screen time, but the tear-and-mucus-filled mini-monologue she gives in the face of the rawest form of Macbeth’s madness is enough to make anyone step back and realize how unspeakably wrong this all is.

Due to the length of individual moments and monologues, combined with the film’s relatively short runtime (under two hours), the story feels a bit truncated.  But it’s the power of those individual moments that keeps it afloat.  The play’s most famous speeches – “Out, damned spot,” “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” and others – are captivating and meaningful even when you know they’re coming, because Kurzel’s characters weave them into moments that already exist, rather than creating moments around them.  Cotillard and Fassbender practically whisper words that in other versions are expressed as booming, profound pontifications.  No room for that here.  Despite the film’s emphasis on battle scenes and violence (in a play where most, if not all, of the deaths take place offstage), everything feels intensely personal.

Maybe that’s the key going forward with Shakespeare adaptations on film: not trying to make them cool and different (i.e. looking at the macro, the outward, the exterior), but to turn inward and examine what we can get from these characters now.

220px-macbeth_2015_posterMacbeth (2015); directed by Justin Kurzel; starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki.



Much Ado About Nothing

Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons

Amy AckerShakespeare is one of the only writers whose work can be acceptably “interpreted” to fit new adaptations.  One of the more popular ideas about Much Ado About Nothing – among the most effective of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that Beatrice and Benedick are rediscovering an old love as opposed to finding it for the first time.  Joss Whedon plays with this in his new adaptation, which he shot at his own home in Santa Monica in record time.  Much of the great nuance stems from Whedon’s film technique, including his use of black-and-white, which may remind one of the great comedies of old (Shakespeare’s play is unarguably one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy), namely the 1930s.  Finally, a Shakespeare film adaptation by a director that not only understands the text, but also understands the conventions of the film genre in which he works and how employing those conventions might bolster the effectiveness of the movie.

The story follows the original, down to the exact word aside from some interesting shifts – the various songs from the play, sung by characters, are here absorbed into the film’s soundtrack – and Whedon’s inspired choice to switch Conrade’s (Riki Londhome) gender, rendering her the lover of the mostly-offscreen scoundrel Don John (Sean Maher).  This enables some wonderful opportunities in blocking, and also some invention on the part of the filmmakers, which is always important in an adaptation, and usually leads to vicious abuse of the source material.  Not here.

Beatrice and Benedick, the leads, are played warmly and familiarly by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who just might be the new sweethearts of the screen (think Peppy and George, but not quite so forced).  Acker’s Beatrice is steadfast, opinionated, and witty beyond belief.  Denisof’s Benedick is relentlessly hammy, and never misses the mark with his nearly endless quips.  I’d have watched a movie comprised of nothing but these two, but we get much more, namely in Riki Lindhome as the infamously straightforward Conrade, whose facial expressions in the film are as good as any of her lines, and Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, written by Shakespeare to be the dumbest, most inept character of all time, who inadvertently (along with his underlings) saves the day by revealing Don John’s dastardly plot to frame naive and frustratingly-silent Hero (Jillian Morgese) for an adultery she never committed.  Fillion delivers Shakespeare’s arduously-crafted malapropisms more naturally than anyone I’ve seen in the role (don’t take that the wrong way, Nathan).  Fran Kranz appears as Claudio, the play’s Boring Hero, and delivers most of the film’s straight-played dramatic dialogue more than convincingly.  The role of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon – who functions mostly as Claudio’s drunk friend whose lot in life is to provide bad advice with high-school-level maturity – is taken up by Reed Diamond, who keeps an appropriate presence and doesn’t upstage the less overt Claudio when he isn’t supposed to.  Clark Gregg of The Avengers plays Leonato, governor of Messina, who decides on all of the ridiculous stipulations in the story.

The resulting movie is the best onscreen comedy in years, in a world wherein screwball comedy has lately been defined by lowbrow sex jokes, hit-or-miss improv, and increasingly preposterous situations.  Here is something low key, accessible, cultured, and smart.  Here is something heartfelt, truly funny, and furthermore, relevant – Shakespeare’s poking fun at the incompetent police forces of his day (which at the time were made up of respectable citizens who took up the job for a few nights a year despite being all but completely unqualified to do so) doesn’t quite pinpoint the more serious missteps of our current enforcement, but Dogberry’s ineptitude (not least of which is his famously redundant list of Conrade and Borachio’s felonies) and eventual day-saving suggest that social order and emotional normalcy can and will be restored by sheer providence/circumstance.  It also showcases women in a medium (Renaissance comedy) wherein many folks may not have thought prominent female characters would exist (or at least not as wives and damsels, as they do in much of Shakespeare’s work).  Moreover, all the wit and wordplay still dazzle, right down to the title: “nothing” and “noting” were homonyms when the play was written, and here we have a story in which every character’s emotional stability is upturned due to something that did not actually happen (i.e. “nothing”), and every major turning point in the story is triggered by characters spying and eavesdropping on one another (i.e. “noting”).

May Whedon continue along this road.  This is real superhero work.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013); written and directed by Joss Whedon; adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Riki Lindhome.


Hear you this Triton of the minnows?

Ralph Fiennes’ modern-day adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragic Coriolanus is either a masterpiece or a travesty depending upon your level of reading comprehension in high school and college.   When I was working on my theatre minor, this was one of the plays I wished our department would put on (next to George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House), but alas, we were stuck with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that one bit of Shakespeare that’s impossible not to “get.”

Fiennes’ version of the story takes place in “Rome,” though the soldiers wear American army fatigues, and the streets and the protesters occupying them look painfully familiar.  As contemporary as the scenery may be, however, we’re still playing by Rome’s rules, and if you want to be on the same level as the characters when the story begins, a basic understanding of Roman government is necessary.  Fiennes plays Caius Martius, a newly appointed general in the running for consul during the era of popular rule.  He almost gets there, but because of the scheming tribunes (James Nesbitt and Paul Jesson), the people realize that Martius, a brutal, idealistic military man who believes the people should have no control over the patricians (“allowing crows to peck at the eagles”), may not be the best person to represent them.  The tribunes push Martius over the edge during a heated conversation in front of the entire capital, driving the latter to denounce the government and its people, a crime punished by banishment.  Eventually, Martius, a shell of himself, forms an alliance with his blood enemy Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler), concerned with nothing but vengeance against his country.

Fundamental issues already exist in this narrative, including the fact that Martius has a wife, Virgilia (played by Jessica Chastain, the most prolific actress working today, as far as I’m concerned), often described as one of Shakespeare’s loveliest female characters (which isn’t saying much, but that’s neither here nor there); an overbearing mother, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and a young son.  He leaves them behind without a word, also forsaking his friends, including Senator Menenius (Brian Cox).  If Martius loses his self-righteous battle against Rome, can we really see this as a “tragedy?”  He’s a violent maniac, a pathetic husband, and a dangerous political figure.

Performance-wise, Fiennes, Chastain, Redgrave, Cox, and Nesbitt bring their A-games, as one would expect in a film of this type.  Butler, billed as the co-star but playing a character who doesn’t actually appear much, does a competent job looking menacing, but I occasionally got the sense that he memorized the thick Shakespearian dialogue without much thought about its meaning.  Unfortunately, the second half of the film does not live up to the first.  Aside from an extended battle that might make you think you’re watching The Hurt Locker, the film’s first hour is ripe with drama: Martius vs. his mother, Martius vs. his wife, Martius vs. the people, Martius vs. Aufidius, Martius vs. the tribunes.  This is all forgone once he is banished, and the “raid on Rome” is never actually shown, so the desperation of Volumnia and Virgilia to stop him in the climactic confrontation is not completely evident; the scene itself, however, shines.

Additionally, material from the original play is changed and removed, often for incomprehensible reasons.  Why, for example, does screenwriter John Logan choose to have Menenius commit suicide in the latter 3/4 of the film after being unable to convince Martius to halt his advance on Rome?  The danger is not real enough for him to think the entire city is doomed, and his friendship with Martius is never developed enough to make us believe he would be so devastated.  The other unforgivable change is the omission of Aufidius’ final speech in the play, where after seeing to Martius’ death, he expresses not satisfaction despite his lifelong desire to kill the man, but a great sorrow, and orders that Martius be given a noble burial.

Coriolanus is a good film because of its cast.  Fiennes is rarely so fierce, and we’re reminded why Vanessa Redgrave should be leading more ensembles.  I can only assume that the modern combat visuals and bizarre revisions are an attempt to rope in the Call of Duty crowd, but hey, if it gets young people to absorb staples of literary culture (and more so to attempt to understand their construction, flaws, and their racial and gender issues), I support it.

Coriolanus (2011); written by John Logan (adapted from William Shakespeare’s play); directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Chastain, and Gerard Butler.

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