‘By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes’ – that’s a great early line from the bard which was etched its way into the cultural vernacular, and never has the mood of dire apprehension, inescapable fate and grim oppressive doom been articulated in movie culture more than with this latest screen incarnation of the so-called ‘Scottish play‘. Director Justin Kurzel – he who assaulted us with the Australian psycho drama Snowtown a few years back – follows in the imposing footsteps of no less than Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and Roman Polanski in terms of taking on one of Shakespeare’s higher profile plays, and judging by this sophomore effort he is emerging as a master of atmosphere and evocative dread. As a reluctant product of the UK’s comprehensive education system I inevitably have a passing knowledge of my countryman’s literate achievements, as you are guaranteed to have studied some of his plays by the time you exit stage left and either continue your studies or begin a hesitant career in your late teens. Alongside The Winters Tale and A Comedy of Errors I have studied Macbeth, and I actually found it pretty amazing given the swordfights and medieval Machiavellian manoeuvring, which wasn’t at all bad for an academic activity populated with boring old people from olden times speaking in a really stupid and weird way. Macbeth concerned itself with the power dynamics, rituals and the deceitful posturing of noble people and their consorts long before the scheming Game Of Thrones, as a Tolkien fanatic a lot of this medieval fantasy type stuff was already in my wheelhouse, plus we got to see some tits by watching the Polanski version on VHS – result. For the uninitiated the we open in the 12th century Scottish hinterlands, where the upstart yet ruthlessly efficient general Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) defeats the combined forces of Norway and Ireland in the name of his clans ruler King Duncan (David Thewlis). With the Kings son newly enshrined as the heir to the throne Macbeth’s wife (Marion Cottillard) whispers of treachery and deceit, echoing a spectral prophecy from a trio of sorceress who prologue the tale of Macbeth’s righteous ascension. Aggravated at his dismissal Macbeth nurses a grievous blood-lust, a thirst for power which is stoked by his malicious wife, an augury inevitably cloaked in violent tragedy. Rounding out the impressive cast are the likes of Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as MacDuff, and Elizabeth Debicki as his wife, Lady MacDuff.
If you’ve seen Kurzel’s Snowtown then you’ll know that he is adept in invoking an atmosphere of choking apprehension, where the threat of brutal violence lurks around every corner, no more so than in this brooding, malevolent take on one of the bards great tragedies. This translation churns with elemental forces ingrained deep in the blood soaked earth, erupting in orgiastic reveries of power, of lust, and of madness, chittering and clawing like the hyperborean winds howling through the highlands. Kurzel opens up the play from its theatrical origins by framing the drama against some epic visual tapestries, the drama twisting and turning beneath a corpse grey bruised sky, with sulphurous mists masking the principals as spectral apparitions from a mythic, long dormant age. Black and red are the primary colours, with interiors shrouded in mysterious lurking shadows, or entire battle sequences submerged in crimson infernos, an impressive and impressionistic take on the material which is reminiscent of Winding-Refn’s Valhalla Rising.
The story revolves around the titular villain and his manipulative, malodorous wife, played with sultry, wraith-eyed intensity by Cotillard, a porcelain succubae who spins a web of deceit and grief in order to usurp the kingdom. Indeed it’s the concept of grief as a propelling, poisonous force where the film departs from the play, as Kurzel and his three scriptwriters have added the concept of a dead child as Macbeth and his wives machinery of mania, opening the film with his funeral and the couples desperate, paralysing grieving. Fassbender is fantastic as always, a thoroughly repellent figure wracked with an internal intensity, while his delivery of the great soliloquy ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ seems worthy of those legends who have seized the mantle over past screen translations. One moment where he hears some terrible news is just a fantastic screen moment (I guess after 400 years we still need to avoid plot spoilers eh?), as a tsunami of emotions course across his face before he sets his courage to the sticking post, and charges out to face his dire destiny.
Complementing the atmosphere is a lyrical score by Jed Kurzel whom one assumes is related to the director somehow, taking the period and location specifics to erect a portentous cathedral of cataclysm, without resorting to comedic bagpipes or simple ethnic pounding war-drums. This is high praise coming from me but I was also put in the mind of Apocalypse Now, where the lunacy and madness of the tale seems to saturate through the compositional elements on-screen, performance, imagery and sound draping the tragedy with a nightmarish hue, with some brutal moments which earn the films corpse strewn certificate. This was a good dry run for the LFF which begins in earnest on Wednesday, so seeing two films in one day (I also caught The Martian which is Ridders best movie in fifteen years) gives me some practice writing deadlines before the chaos commences in just a few days. Of the numerous Shakespeare film adaptions this is top-tier territory, a smoke encrusted soliloquy on power and malice which malingers throughout the ages;
As part of the National Film & Television School syllabus the BFI are hosting a film season called ‘Ecstatic Landscapes’, a season which can loosely be regarded as a series of films where the locales and environment are ostensibly used not only for any formal visual effect of beauty but also to explore the depths of human nature that form the spine of the film’s themselves. Presumably you’ve been paying attention and can imagine my excitement at the prospect of seeing one of the most beautiful films ever made on the big screen, I’m speaking of course of Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon‘ which emerged to poor reviews and box office back in 1975. I have seen ‘Lyndon‘ on the big screen once before, the first time I had ever seen it in fact back when I was at college at a screening attended by an audience packed with one other person, two if you count the projectionist. Initially I was mystified by the film, enamored of course with its overwhelming beauty and the plot as it was kept me gripped but it has taken me over fifteen years of research and reading to truly uncover many of its other treasures and strengths. That is one of the things that I love about the movies, as you mature and develop so do they, your own experiences informing and expanding your appreciation and understanding of this wonderful medium. This second big screen viewing was a much richer experience. Before we begin I have to give you the usual spoilers warning as they are many and frequent, I’ve really decided to go for ‘it’ with this entry so be prepared for some outrageous cinematic claims, absurd academic theorising and detailed chin-stroking wankiness.
Based on the relatively unknown book ‘The Luck Of Barry Lyndon‘ by William Makepeace Thackery, the film can be broadly partitioned into two sections, both of which unfold in late 18th century Europe. In the first movement our ‘hero’ Redmond Barry (Ryan O’Neil) is introduced as a headstrong Irish middle class gentlemen who falls foul of the law after he supposedly kills a British Officer in a duel over the affections of his cousin Nora. Fleeing the authorities he is robbed of his worldly possessions and enlists into the British Army, his only chance of avoiding the hangmans noose. His military career leads him through a sequence of battles, subterfuge and spying which eventually conclude with Redmond becoming an international cardsharp, frolicking and fleecing his way through the Imperial European courts. Barry eventually decides to achieve more stability in his affairs and seduces Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson), an ethereal aristocrat with whom he conducts a loveless marriage as in Barry’s world only property and status can confer the prestige he so evidently desires. In the second section of the film we are presented with the domestic life of a aristocrat in all its pomp and glory, Barry furtively seeking to climb the social ladder whilst managing the rebellious inclinations of his step son Lord Bullingdon who loathes Barry for his preceived exploitation of his mother and slow erosion of the Lyndon estate, both financially and in reputation.
This is quite simply an immaculate film, a film which imperceptibly transports the viewer back to 18th century Europe through the masterful command of pacing, lighting, performance, costume and set design all effortlessly slotting together in each of the films two movements to construct for me the greatest period set film I have seen. Whilst the formal, harmonious symmetrical compositions are typical of Kubrick’s style he abandons his trademark tracking shot technique in favour of a new visual motif – the slow reverse zoom which reflects and supports a brilliant portrayal of the Age of Reason itself as it became fully embedded in human history. This technique focuses on one pertinent element in the frame – the dueling weapons in this scene for example – before zooming out to present an entire tableau of compositions culled from 17th and 18th century art, just look at this wonderful examination for comparisons. As some of the academics have noted, this approach almost feels like Kubrick flirting with the idea of even being able to photographically present an era before photography was even invented, an apt observation given that the traditional close up and shot / reverse shot 20th century formula of cinematic language almost invariably follows to drive the scene and story forward. You can detect Kubrick cinematically flexing his muscles as it were, mirroring those tense fast zooms in ‘Strangelove‘ whilst Spielberg also used both zoom methods as visual homage nods to Stan (2:50 onward) in ‘AI‘ (3:58+) but I’m not gonna get sidetracked into my opinions of that deeply flawed but interesting project here, that’s a whole blog post on its own.
I saw the film three weeks ago on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse and whilst wandering past their Canary Wharf HQ on the way home I pondered over the themes of commerce and status, the financial intertwined with prestige, with position and how all these destructive impulses essentially revolve around games of chance which gave the film a real contemporary resonance. The four duels in the film where life itself is at stake are conducted as the result of financial affairs in quandary (Nora’s marriage to the British officer and the dowry it will attract, two duels at the result of gambling disagreements and Barry’s final tournament with Lord Bullingdon over the control and management of the Bullingdon estate) which all therefore elevate money over humanity, the accumulation of wealth trumping all other worldly concerns.
I despair at some of the reviews that were printed in 1975 and beyond, criticising the film for its supposed coldness and complaining of it being nothing more than a beautiful yet utterly empty ‘coffee table’ book of a movie. Some of the critics complained that is was no ‘Tom Jones‘, a lively jaunt through 18th century Europe with lashings of bawdy sex and comedy. So, you do something different and take an alternative approach and that is rejected? No doubt these same critics also wrote articles on how commodifed and identical films are and have become for the same magazines in the months and years that followed. I’m not saying that trying something different is to be welcomed for its own sake – just look at ‘The Fountain‘ to see it doesn’t always work – but goddamn it I prefer to live in a world where the likes of Aronofsky have the balls and will to do something different and reach higher, even it it doesn’t always succeed. Yes the film is Kubrick examining the species on the autopsy lab, dissecting the conformity and the rigid hierarchy of the era, presenting the court protocols and suffocating society in his own idiosyncratic way but that’s the whole point. Even the so called ‘coldness’ is a deliberate approach as that veneer enhances the two real moments in the film when the restraints of ritual society are punctured, when the shackles of protocol are violated to be all the more effective, namely when Barry beats lord Bullingdon in public (which got a gasp in the audience and yes I know that link’s in Italian but it was the best I could find) and the death of his son Brian which is arguably the most moving and tender scene in Kubrick’s entire career. OK, when it comes to tenderness there ain’t much to choose from but hey….
It’s also a pretty funny movie in places, the audience were laughing at many of the scenes (and not at it but with it I hasten to add) which I think is down to the use of that restrained yet vivid language (as in the robbery scene linked to above) which is refreshing and I think almost unique in the movies, Bresson leaping to mind as the only other contender. It’s obvious to see Kubrick’s fascination with communication and language in his films, the nadsat of course in ‘Orange‘ which initially drew him to that project, the peculiar jargon of the military mindset in both ‘Strangelove‘ and ‘Jacket’, the veiled sexuality and obsession in ‘Lolita‘ – ‘……it was your cherry pies’. There’s no-one who gets so much with so little, like Stan himself said ‘Realistic is good. Interesting is better’ which is the perfect rebuttal of any criticisms of Nicholson being over the top in ‘The Shining‘. Lyndon, like ‘Zelig‘ in Woody Allens film is something of a cypher to take you through the story without distractions in terms of character development or tedious, clumsy ‘explanation’ scenes which Kubrick leaves to the ironic voiceover. It’s a wider scope, a broader canvass that Kubrick is working on, not being restrained by traditional notions of one central protagonist and their journey being the sole raison d’être of his films.
Phew, that’s taken me a while to put together, I hope you liked it and its given you the impetus to pick up the film and give it a whirl. Here are some general links to the film, including my favourite scene to wrap things up. I’m inspired to go back and take another look at ‘The Fountain’ as it happens after writing this, I hope my initial disappointment is dispelled, well we shall see. My second birthday is approaching so keep an eye out for some minor adjustments to the blog in terms of visual presentation which is something I have been toying with for a while, stay safe and enjoy….