Macbeth (2015)

2016 #23
Justin Kurzel | 113 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play. Not that I’m a great scholar of the Bard, but I’ve seen and/or read enough to have a favourite. I also think it’s one of his most accessible works: its story and characters are relatively straightforward without being devoid of complexity; it’s got some immensely effective imagery and dialogue, including a solid compliment of famous lines; and it’s not excessively long either (it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, in fact). I also studied it twice over in secondary school, so I know it fairly well. Now, this doesn’t mean I have exacting standards when it comes to film adaptations (Shakespeare is plenty open to interpretation), but it does mean I have my expectations up, especially as there isn’t a film version of Macbeth that could reasonably be described as “definitive” (though I know Polanski’s has its fans). After this latest effort, that’s still the case — but that doesn’t mean it’s without merit. Far from it.

For thems that don’t know, Macbeth is set in 11th Century Scotland, where the eponymous character (Michael Fassbender) is a lord and general in the army of King Duncan (David Thewlis). After winning a decisive battle, Macbeth and his BFF Banquo (Paddy Considine) bump into a coven of witches, who forecast Macbeth will receive a new title and eventually become king. Although the men are naturally dubious, they soon learn that Macbeth has indeed been granted the prophesied thaneship. With the prospect of being king too tantalising to ignore, Macbeth’s ambitious spouse (Marion Cotillard) eggs him on to plot regicide…

Although director Justin Kurzel (of Snowtown, a film I have no intention of watching thanks to ghost of 82’s review) wasn’t hired until after the film was in development and Fassbender had been cast, the final film has been very much guided by his vision. The text is heavily cut (a copy & paste & delete-bits job that somehow took three screenwriters), to the displeasure of some critics, though this is primarily because Kurzel chose to supplant some of the dialogue with Filmmaking. In a film?! How very dare he! What I mean, more specifically, is that he’s visualised parts of the text; applied the old rule of “show don’t tell”. So rather than a messenger giving the King a full account of Macbeth being awesome in battle, we see some of the combat; Banquo has hardly any lines early on, but we still understand his friendship with Macbeth just from the way they look at one another and go into battle together.

Throughout, it’s the imagery that Kurzel and DoP Adam Arkapaw have crafted that’s the real standout of this particular adaptation (however good the cast are, and I’ll come to them). The compositions, the unusual use of almost tableaux-like blocking, the lighting, the colour palettes, the rhythm of the editing and the use of slow-mo… This is a highly filmic film, in a good way. At times, it manages to turn Shakespeare into an action movie, a feat rarely (if ever) accomplished previously. At others, it’s just mighty purdy. The pictures are well complemented by the score, composed by the director’s younger brother, Jed Kurzel (he’s also scored the likes of The Babadook and Slow West, so it’s not just nepotism). His work here is appropriately haunting and folksy.

To say the text has been cut and the film is strongest in its visuals does not mean this is an empty-headed version of Shakespeare, however. The director and his cast have some interesting variations on the usual depictions of the characters, in particular Lady Macbeth’s motivations. Normally shown as greedy and power-mad, here she is grief-stricken — there’s a single line in the play that’s interpretable as the Macbeths having lost a child, which here is both made explicit and highlighted in an opening funeral scene. These characters are acting out of some kind of desperation or emptiness rather than pure greed. When, later, she (spoiler!) goes mad, it’s subtle and sad, rather than frantic and delirious. Cotillard is fantastic in all of this, and certainly worked hard for it: the way the French language applies emphasis is not suited to delivering iambic pentameter, apparently, so she worked hard with a dialect coach to nail her delivery. Her accent clearly marks Lady Macbeth as the only non-Scottish character here, which becomes another layer added to this interpretation.

As Macbeth, Fassbender negotiates well the accomplished general who is also dominated by his wife. Here the guiding concept was Macbeth The Warrior; to portray him both as someone looking to replace what he’s lost by the battle being over, and as suffering from PTSD after what he’s witnessed, hence repeated hallucinations of a boy killed in battle. This isn’t out of place with the text, of course — “is this a dagger I see before me” and all that. Fassbender is on furious form, particularly as Macbeth gives in to his paranoia later on. A word too for the supporting cast, in particular Sean Harris as Macduff, who makes the character feel more essential to the story (as he should, considering the climax) than I remember him being in previous versions.

Some of this analysis is thanks to the short handful of featurettes found on the UK Blu-ray (the US release, out tomorrow, has different special features, so I’ve no idea what the overlap will be, if any). There’s no commentary track, which is a real shame. I don’t often get round to listening to them, but I’d be interested to hear Kurzel talk through his and his cast’s decisions on a scene-by-scene basis. The special features that there are give some insight into how thoroughly they thought through their adaptation and prepared for it, but that only means the lack of further insight is even more pronounced. And Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotillard, and Arkapaw are all now working on the film of Assassin’s Creed, out this December, which is an intriguing prospect — is it going to be an arthouse video game adaptation? I suspect not, but maybe it will be the rarest thing in cinematic history: a good film based on a computer game.

I was initially on the fence about whether this Macbeth was a 4-star or a 5-star achievement, especially as I maintain it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of Macbeth on screen. But it’s one of those films that, whatever the experience of actually sitting and watching it is like (at times: odd), its imagery and feel really stay with you.

5 out of 5

Macbeth is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the US tomorrow, and is out in the UK already.
Next month, Polanski’s
Macbeth is one of the initial releases in Criterion’s new UK range (yay!)

Blitz (2011)

2015 #58
Elliott Lester | 93 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK, France & USA / English | 18 / R

BlitzJason Statham plays the kind of copper who wakes up on his sofa in the middle of the night, immediately pours himself a whiskey in a mug, then goes out and beats up three youths who were trying to nick a car, in this godawful crime novel adaptation.

The plot is something to do with someone killing police officers, seemingly at random, but don’t worry about that because there are multitudinous reasons not to bother watching it. It feels like it was made for TV in the ’70s — the quality of the dialogue, the attitudes, the performances, the visuals… Not just the ’70s, even, just any cheap “for blokes” production from before the millennium. Throwback entertainment can work — though we tend to call it “retro” and play it tongue-in-cheek — but Blitz just feels dated.

The writing is, unsurprisingly, awful. It’s adapted from the fourth novel in a series, which apparently explains why some of the supporting characters (Zawe Ashton’s in particular) engage in pointless subplots barely connected to the main narrative — in the novels, it’s an ongoing thread spanning multiple books. Why did it get left in? Presumably because writer Nathan Parker doesn’t know what he’s doing. He did also write the acclaimed Moon though, so who knows.

The running manAt least it has some so-bad-they’re-good one-liners — “Aren’t you going to take any notes?” “Do I look like I carry a pencil?” Unfortunately, their presence meant the thing Blitz most reminded me of was A Touch of Cloth, Charlie Brooker’s Naked Gun-esque police procedural spoof. After that notion embeds itself, the whole film feels like a straight-faced spoof, where nothing that occurs can possibly have been meant to be taken seriously.

Surprisingly, the cast is filled out with some really good (and/or recognisable) actors slumming it: David Morrissey, Paddy Considine, Aidan Gillen, Luke Evans, Mark Rylance. Yes, Mark Rylance. Mark “Wolf Hall” Rylance. Mark “greatest theatre actor of his generation” Rylance. Mark bleeding Rylance! Why, Mark? Why?!

The cast might make you think this is an above-average Jason Statham movie. It isn’t. In fact, even by the standards of Statham’s usual work, this is bad. Avoid it.

1 out of 5

Blitz featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Red Riding: 1980 (2009)

aka Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980

2009 #51
James Marsh | 93 mins | TV (HD) | 15

This review contains major spoilers.

Red Riding: 1980The second instalment of the Red Riding Trilogy sets out its stall with a stunning opening montage, covering six years of the Yorkshire Ripper case in as many minutes through news footage and faux news footage. In one fell swoop this establishes its own storyline, fills in some of what’s happened since 1974, and sets itself apart from its predecessor: this one’s based on fact. Well, a bit.

Unfortunately, a factual grounding hasn’t helped the story one jot. Where the first idled, this meanders, flitting between the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation into the Karachi Club shooting (which closed 1974), and the private life of lead character Peter Hunter. It’s the cover up surrounding the middle of these that’s the most interesting, but that’s also the bit with the least time devoted to it. Most is spent on Hunter’s investigation into the investigation of the Ripper case, though by the end it becomes apparent this exists to cover the ‘real’ story — which is, of course, the Karachi Club cover up. Consequently neither are covered with the appropriate depth: the Ripper investigation is never a serious thread, the team we follow uncovering nothing significant and the Ripper himself captured by chance, off-screen, by a previously-unseen regular constable; and the incidents at the Karachi Club, and their lasting impact, are just about clarified but given no serious weight before a last-minute explanation.

If that sounds complicated, it isn’t. As in 1974, it’s all too straightforward: the people you suspect did it actually did, as it turns out, and there’s no serious attempt to conceal that. In fairness, it just about manages one surprise, right at the end, and the moment after this — where Hunter’s murderer shows remorse with one brief, subtle facial expression — is by far the best bit of the film. Worse than the lack of suspense, 1980 seems to forget its own plot all too often. Hunter is employed by the Home Office, for example, and told to report directly to them and them alone. But then we never see those characters again, not even when he’s later dismissed by lower-ranked officers — why not return to the men he was, supposedly, actually employed by? Other plot points are pushed aside too soon, forgotten about or just abandoned.

Characters and locations resurface from the first film — an unsurprising continuity, but pleasingly almost all appear in a context that’s actually relevant to the plot, rather than a mere catch-up on a previously-known person. Some of them have great import now, their role in the trilogy apparently fulfilled, while others remain little more than cameos with no bearing on the story, suggesting an even bigger part still to play. This works quite well, creating a real world where characters come and go rather than one that is obsessively — and unrealistically — interconnected.

The same can be said of the cinematography. Marsh frequently finds a beautiful or unusual shot, enlivening proceedings considerably. The 35mm glossiness doesn’t evoke the feel of a grimy past quite so thoroughly as Jarrold’s hazy 16mm, but as this is now the ’80s perhaps that’s the point. Nonetheless, the setting conveyed is still a drab, dreary — and constantly damp — North.

Underscored by a plot that doesn’t really come together, and largely bears little relation to the other two films, 1980 is the weakest entry in the trilogy.

3 out of 5

The Red Riding Trilogy

Red Riding Trilogy UKYou’d think Red Riding was a TV miniseries, wouldn’t you? After all, it was on Channel 4 on the same day for three consecutive weeks (recently repeated over three consecutive nights).

But the promotion — on iTunes, for example, or of Silva Screen’s soundtrack releases — is very keen to make reference not to “Red Riding” — as in, the title of a TV series — but “The Red Riding Trilogy” — as in, a series of films. Indeed, they are frequently referred to as “the films” (and similar variations thereof) in promotion and press, have received screenings at various film festivals and cinema releases in much of the rest of the world, including the US, and several other production and style points could also be rallied to confirm them as a film trilogy rather than miniseries.

As that’s how the makers would most like them to be regarded, then, it seems only fair to treat them as such. And so:


“The feeling one gets is of a British James Ellroy, albeit a low-rent, less complex version. The story idles along, not exactly slow so much as in no hurry, full of near-clichéd plot points and an unrelentingly standard structure. These things aren’t necessarily a problem, but when you’ve got as big and bold a reality claim as the Red Riding Trilogy they feel out of place.” More…

3 out of 5


“Where the first idled this meanders, flitting between the Yorkshire Ripper, the investigation into the Karachi Club shooting, and the private life of lead character Peter Hunter. Most time is spent on Hunter’s investigation into the investigation of the Ripper case, though by the end it becomes apparent this exists to cover the ‘real’ story — which is, of course, the Karachi Club cover up. Consequently neither are covered with the appropriate depth.” More…

3 out of 5


“Tucker’s film bests its predecessors in almost every assessable value. The story and characters have more genuine surprises and suspense than ever, while the performances are at the very least the equal of what’s gone before. Unlike the other two films, where the corrupt cops were little more than cartoon villains despite claims to the contrary, 1983 makes their brutality really felt.” More…

4 out of 5



Red Riding Trilogy USMy final thoughts about Red Riding — other than “that was disappointing” — are stuck on the reality (or not) of the police corruption it portrays. It’s difficult to know whether anyone who believes our police were never so nasty as this is naive, or whether anyone who believes they were quite this bad is paranoid. The truth no doubt lies somewhere in between.

Despite my disappointment with the majority of the Red Riding Trilogy, I intend to return to it some day: considering my enjoyment of the third instalment and the adjusted expectations that come from being disappointed first time round, the potential inherent in the trilogy means it certainly merits revisiting.