Watch Geoffrey Wright's Macbeth with the sound turned way down and what you'll be watching is a visually exciting, highly stylized contemporary gangster film, beautiful in its way, and amusing for having a plot obviously ripped off from Shakespeare.
What you won't be watching is a cool updating of Shakespeare's play. Turn the sound up and listen to the characters speaking all those famous lines and the movie still doesn't turn into a cool updating of Shakespeare's play It turns into a ludicrous parody, a joke that stops being funny as soon as it establishes its premise.
"What if Macbeth was like a drug lord?"
It's not that the actors---Sam Worthington and Victoria Hill in the leads, Wright taking a cue from Roman Polanksi who figured out that the Macbeths, the Thane and his lady, are young and smitten with the image of themselves as an attractive and sexy young couple in love---can't handle the speeches or that the poetry doesn't work against a background of black leather, automatic weapons, and neon lights reflected in wet sidewalks. It's that the nobility of the sentiments the poetry expresses doesn't make sense when the characters are a bunch of sociopathic thugs.
Wright and Hill, who wrote the screenplay, don't transfer the blasted heaths of a pagan Scotland to the Twenty-first Century. There is no What if? to it, not even a what if witches were real---the Goth-inclined schoolgirls playing around with witchcraft in the cemetery where the grief-stricken and coked-out Macbeths are burying their baby boy at the start of the film bore their way into Macbeth's subconscious and re-appear to him later as a drug and exhaustion induced hallucination---Wright and Hill have simply tried to find a contemporary venue for the violence, having asked themselves, "What kind of people get to murder other people these days to satisfy their vaulting ambition? Who carry weapons all the time and defend their turf and property in blazes of gunfire?"
I suppose a case could be made that the thanes and kings of Dark Age Scotland were essentially petty warlords who made theft and murder the bases of their local economies and so you can set the play in Columbia in the 1990s or Afghanistan today (but not as in the movie, Melbourne, Australia) without ranging too wide of the mark. But that's not how Shakespeare sees them in Macbeth.
At the start of the play, Macbeth isn't a villain waiting for his chance. He's what Duncan and Banquo and even Macduff take him for, a brave and noble young hero, who then has a gigantic temptation thrown in his face and falls for it as if into an open well. In this he's meant to be seen as human, not as evil. He becomes evil through the actions he takes.
The play wouldn't, couldn't, be what it is any other way.
If Macbeth isn't heroic, if he doesn't have a soul to risk and lose, if Duncan doesn't represent and uphold something good, if Macduff isn't loyal to a principle higher than revenge, if Malcolm isn't going to restore order and some sense of civil decency, then there's nothing tragic in what happens, the story is merely of historic interest. In this movie, nothing is at stake except the lives of people the world would be better off to see dead.
Without the sound, the movie Macbeth is not Shakespeare's Macbeth, because it's still obvious what these people are doing and what they are killing each other for and so there's no heroism and not tragedy, but also without the sound it's possible to see how movie-goers back in the days before talkies could enjoy watching silent adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.
Shakespeare really did think in visuals. He saw his actors on stage when he wrote and he wrote to put them in motion. In his day and for centuries afterwards, audiences didn't really get to hear the dialog, they hardly paid attention. Bad acoustics, the fact that the plays were often acted at breakneck speeds, people's habit of treating going to the theater as primarily a social event so that large chunks of the audience talked more and louder than the actors, would have made it impossible to listen closely. Shakespeare had to make sure his audiences could follow his plots through what they could see happening. The action is suited to the word and the word to the action.
Only in one of his plays, Love's Labour's Lost, are his characters rooted to the spot by their speeches, which is one of the themes of the plays, as it turns out, as well as the reason the play is practically unstageable. But even in the talkiest of the rest of his plays, Hamlet and Richard II, the characters are driven to and fro across the boards by what they say. They aren't driven willy nilly either. Their dialog forces the actors to be in certain, specific spots and specific moments and to do certain, specific things, often down to the smallest gestures and most fleeting expressions. There are very few stage directions in the texts we have because Shakespeare had already written most of them into the scripts.
This is probably why many contemporary directors and actors get so frustrated when they take on the job of directing and starring in one of his plays that they resort to ridiculous, even insane gimmicks to put their own marks on the show.
I'm not referring to Wright's movie Macbeth, which is only a failed attempt to take it out of period and make it look new, not an ego-driven attempt to make it "original." I'm talking about what apparently went on in the production of King Lear starring Ian McKellen Terry Teachout reviewed a couple weeks back.