If the only goal director Geoffrey Wright had for his movie career was to make a classic piece of Australian cinema, he could have retired after his debut feature Romper Stomper. For most cinema-goers, he did: after his uneven follow-up Metal Skin he headed to Hollywood, where a string of bad luck saw a decade pass with only the quirky teen horror Cherry Falls to his name. Returning to Australia and low-budget film-making for a version of Macbeth set in Melbourne’s underworld, many wondered whether he could still make a film with the power and intelligence seen in Romper Stomper. Here’s the short answer: yes.
This is a Macbeth where the witches are sexy schoolgirls who appear on a nightclub dancefloor shrouded in mist from a smoke-machine and Macbeth’s downfall comes in the form of a Scarface-style gun battle. But though the setting is a glamourous gangster’s paradise the story remains the same: driven by ambition, his wife (Victoria Hill), and the fortellings of three witches, Macbeth (Sam Worthington) murders his boss Duncan (Gary Sweet) and sets himself up in his place, only to see his kingdom crumble into suspicion and bloodshed that leads all-too-swiftly to his own downfall.
It’s not just the plot that’s unchanged; these gun-toting mobsters in flashy suits speak Shakespeare’s original dialogue in a bravura move that, thanks to the cast’s natural range of Aussie accents, doesn’t always pay off. Wright’s clearly gone for attitude in his casting – a Macbeth with Gary Sweet as Duncan is a version not afraid to admit it’s going for a certain kind of mood – and it gives the film a rough-edged energy that’s all too often absent from Australian film.
Worthington grows into his role as the film goes on; by the final battle he brings off a leather kilt like he was born to it. Equally powerful is Lachy Hulme’s slow burn as Macduff, while Hill as Lady Macbeth is equally adept at ruthless ambition and crippling madness. But the biggest surprise – and perhaps the film’s most impressive performance – comes from Mick Molloy. Cast against type as a creepy and brutal murderer, he brings real menace to every scene he’s in.
Wright isn’t quite back to his Romper Stomper form here. Some scenes don’t quite work, and the play’s somber mood doesn’t always gel with the high energy approach this version takes. But Wright’s Macbeth has energy and passion to spare; whatever its flaws, films like this are too rare to pass by.
(this review appeared in The Big Issue)