8/1/08

"Macbeth" (2005)

James McAvoy as Joe Macbeth
James McAvoy (Joe Macbeth), Keeley Hawes (Ella Macbeth), Vincent Regan (Duncan), Richard Armitage (Peter Macduff)

Directed by Mark Brozel

Summary: Another in the BBC's "Shakespeare-Told" series, this time setting the classic tragedy of Macbeth in a restaurant, where Macbeth is the hard-working head chef who kills the hammy celebrity restaurant owner who was his mentor.

Well, this one wasn't nearly so cheery as the other two. What a bummer. I guess they decided that a reinterpretation didn't need to make it any less of a tragedy. Only fitting, really. Greed, pride, envy, competition, discontent--these human weaknesses still thrive today.

I've only seen James McAvoy as Mr. Tumnis in the first Narnia movie, although I know his star has been on the rise of late. Here he sheds the uncomfortable accent he donned for Wanted and rolls on with his bad Scottish self. He did a wonderful job of portraying a guy who was once content. He was once happy and valued everything about what he did for a living. Food, cooking--his passion. Then discontent starts creeping in alongside success. His face changed. His posture. Really quality work.

I've enjoyed Keeley Hawes' performances since seeing her as the scheming, self-centered, but somehow lovable step-sister in "Wives and Daughters." Here she plays the equivalent of Lady Macbeth, escalating her husband's discontent by speaking it aloud and by downplaying his accomplishments. She is brittle, broken, and cold, and her transformation from a cultured maitre'd to a guilt-ridden mess is subtle and powerful.

Richard Armitage has a small role, by comparison, as the head waiter McDuff. In the play, McDuff eventually puts the pieces of the murder together and mounts an opposing army against the tyrant Macbeth becomes. Of course he was brooding and elegant as always, but in such a restrained way as to make him invisible. Poor guy. Everything radiated from McAvoy's performance, his center, leaving Armitage a bit of clean-up duty for the finale.

The plot line with McDuff was less successful to me, because McDuff's entire family is killed off in the play. The modern setting does not bear out this violence well. Randomly shooting a man's wife and children while they sleep? It's a big step to bring that sort of terror into today. Kings and noblemen of old? Sure. Today? You're talking serial killer-level evil. I just couldn't make that leap.

Also, because McDuff eventually kills Macbeth, what would happen to him? Today he'd be booked for the retaliatory murder of the man who'd slain his family. You could maybe claim self-defense, if you squint a bit. But back in ye olde olden days, that sort of thing was practically encouraged and sanction by law. McDuff would escape his deed with a broken heart, sure, but with justice unimpeded by a nasty investigation and trial.

So I suppose the moral of my story is that Shakespeare's comedies survive in modern settings much better than his tragedies. The universal themes he conjured in the comedies--the silliness of pride, the power of love, the benefits of laughter--translate across the centuries, while the violence of the tragedies cannot escape the historical settings without losing credibility and impact.

Still, high marks for trying and for Hawes and McAvoy's excellent performances. And I loved the witches being portrayed as garbage men. Their appearances proved as entertaining and completely mad as in the original.

PS: I won't be posting on "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the last in the BBC's "Shakespeare-Told" series--not because I dislike the play, which I do, but because it's unavailable on YouTube. *sadface*

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