Monday, 28 September, 2015

4 and a half stars

There have been at least thirteen film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s darkest, most brooding tragedy, Macbeth, since 1908. At an average rate of one point something productions per decade, over the last century, only a filmmaker with an innate flair for re-telling stories of the bloody and macabre therefore, could make a fourteenth film suitably compelling.

Macbeth scene

Emerging Australian film director Justin Kurzel’s chilling, yet stunning, 2011 debut feature, Snowtown, established his credentials in this regard, and his variation, trailer, of what is considered one of Shakespeare’s finest plays, that is thought to have first been performed in 1611, will surely take its place among the most memorable big screen turns thus far.

Set in Scotland in the late sixteenth century, the story chronicles the grisly ascent of Scottish general Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) to the throne, after three witches prophecise that it will be his. When his manipulative, ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) hears of their words, she goads Macbeth into murdering King Duncan (David Thewlis) almost immediately.

Macbeth scene

Duncan is not the last to die at Macbeth’s hand though, and indeed the killing only intensifies, even after he is crowned, as Macbeth attempts to eliminate a growing number of nobles, suspicious of Duncan’s untimely demise. Before long however, guilt begins to weigh heavily on him, and Lady Macbeth, and both begin to spiral into a self-destructive madness.

Kurzel’s Macbeth is ethereal and atmospheric, earthy and dense, and bestows a modernity on the old play without dispensing with the much cherished Shakespearean verse. Topped off with spellbinding performances from Fassbender and Cotillard, this work is certain to be compared favourably with the adaptations of Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, and Akira Kurosawa.

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The Lady

Thursday, 19 April, 2012

3 and a half stars

Aung San Suu Kyi is the Burmese pro-democracy advocate, and opposition politician, who has devoted decades of her life leading the struggle to bring democracy to her home. Her father, Aung San, lead Burma to independence from Britain in the late 1940s, but was assassinated in 1947 before he could assume full leadership of the country.

The Lady (trailer), the latest feature of French film director Luc Besson (“Nikita”, “Joan of Arc”), while chronicling Suu Kyi’s (Michelle Yeoh) ceaseless work, explores the relationships within her family, particularly with husband Michael Aris (David Thewlis), and also the personal cost of her enduring and selfless crusade.

Having spent many years living in London with Aris and her two sons, Alexander (Jonathan Woodhouse), and Kim (Jonathan Raggett), Suu Kyi is forced to return to Burma in 1988 after her mother becomes seriously ill. While in Rangoon, Suu Kyi is horrified by the violent treatment being meted out to protesting students by military forces.

The Lady still

Having moved back into her childhood home while caring for her mother, Suu Kyi is approached by a group of academics and asked to lead the National League for Democracy. While she initially garners much support from the Burmese people, she soon raises the ire of the ruling military junta who seek to silence her.

“The Lady” paints a despairing picture of the price people will pay for perseverance in their beliefs. Suu Kyi has endured years of house arrest and separation from her family, and in one of the junta’s many attempts to break her resolve, saw her ailing husband refused permission to visit her before his death in 1999 from cancer.

While Yeoh’s performance is seamless, and comparable to Meryl Streep in “The Iron Lady”, or Helen Mirren in “The Queen”, “The Lady” is let down by other less than convincing portrayals, particularly key military leaders, who often, and unhelpfully, present as comical figures. “The Lady” is not a perfect film but it is certainly an effecting one.

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Monday, 7 November, 2011

3 stars

The premise

Anonymous (trailer), a drama, is the latest feature of German director Roland Emmerich (“Independence Day”, “The Day After Tomorrow”), and is based on the notion – viewed dimly by many scholars and literary historians – that someone else wrote the plays and sonnets of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare.

Set mostly in late sixteenth century London, towards the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), “Anonymous” is a dramatisation of the behind the scenes jockeying of English lords and nobles to have an English subject, in preference to King James of Scotland, succeed the increasingly ailing Elizabeth.

The play

The Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (Rhys Ifans), a consummate writer, is forced to abandon his passion after impulsively killing a servant he found spying on him in his room at the house of William Cecil (David Thewlis), chief advisor to Elizabeth. Cecil, also a Puritan, believed plays and poems to be the work of the devil.

Additionally Cecil coerces de Vere into marrying his daughter Anne (Helen Baxendale), in return for his silence regarding the servant’s death. This doesn’t however stop de Vere from writing clandestinely, or from attending plays at The Rose theatre, where he comes to appreciate the influence they can have on those in the audience.

de Vere begins to realise plays could have a part in a grass roots campaign of sorts to ensure an English subject ascends to the throne on the eventual death of Elizabeth, but knowing he cannot be seen to be part of such an idea, asks Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto), an aspiring playwright, if he can stage the plays under his name instead.

At the conclusion of the staging of the first play under this arrangement though, a drunken actor, William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), steps onto the stage and passes himself off as the writer, to much adulation. To Johnson’s chagrin, de Vere reluctantly uses Shakespeare’s name for future plays, while pressing ahead with his original plan.

The wrap

To my mind “Anonymous” works better as a political thriller, rather than any sort of attempt to make the case that Shakespeare didn’t write the many works bearing his name. As a historical dramatisation, “Anonymous” is similar to The Da Vinci Code, though the latter was far more effective in suspending the disbelief of its audiences.

“Anonymous”, though richly made, is a more hotchpotch affair. A large cast, who often have multiple titles, is hard to absorb, while poorly defined timeline jumps within the sixteenth century only add to the confusion as to whose who. Shakespeare’s portrayal as a drunken, ignorant, illiterate, opportunist, buffoon will doubtless also offend his admirers.

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The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Friday, 1 May, 2009

4 stars

Poignant, confronting, and totally engrossing, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas could have been a great film had it have not stretched the naivety of 8 year lead Bruno (Asa Butterfield) as far as it did.

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