In case you aren’t aware, 17.2 million people tuned in last Sunday to watch the X Factor final. That equates to over a quarter of the British population. 1 in 4 people tuned in to see what was the culmination of a series consisting of four over-moneyed funny-looking charmless twats scoring unlikeable desperate wannabes singing mediocre versions of crap songs.
I know attacking the X Factor is nearly as MOR as the programme itself, but I really don’t understand. It purports to democratise music, but instead is an exercise of the industry’s most oligarchic tendencies. What is it that appeals about it? How can something so unabashedly massive be so incomprehensible to those who are outside of the believing horde? If its fans like music, why don’t they listen to some proper records? How have we reached a stage where it’s considered a genuine rebellion to try and get a song other than the winner of the contest to Christmas number 1 (how fitting that last year it was Rage Against the Machine, the prophets of ineffectual mock rebellion?).
Please, help me to understand. I don’t want to believe, I just want to quell the deep feeling of uneasiness and incomprehension that it gives me. Uneasiness, fittingly enough, leads us on to the subject of BBC4’s competitor for ratings on the same evening, Rupert Goold’s Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart. The film is an adaptation of Goold’s stage version of the play, much as the Gregory Doran directed RSC Hamlet, starring David Tennant (shown last Christmas), was. Similarly, the director has chosen to change the setting of the play, in this case to an unspecified central European country. Unlike Hamlet, in which Stewart also features (the best thing about it by quite a way), this was a triumph. Not an unqualified one by any means, but a triumph nonetheless.
Stewart is of course untouchable, and plays his part with intensity and a dose of unpredictability that in the hands of less accomplished actor might seem self indulgent, but only adds to his august performance. Kate Fleetwood’s scheming, malevolent Lady Macbeth is also superb; she has being quietly terrifying down to a tee. I could go through the entire cast doling out praise, but I’ll spare you, save to say that Martin Turner (Banquo) really looks like Roberto Mancini.
The real star, though, is the aesthetic of the thing. It looks beautiful and sinister. Most of the action takes place in narrow corridors or rooms with indefinable edges (it was shot at Welbeck Abbey if you’re interested), which creates a wonderfully unsettling feeling of claustrophobia and paranoia. The paranormal Gothic feel of the film is reflected in the prevalence of darkness, or inconsistent light, and the insertion of medical elements, primarily in the witches’ costumes, is also a nice touch. And those witches, bloody hell, they’re constantly appearing on the fringes of scenes, making the whole thing seem like a hellish game; it’s not a big leap to make Macbeth a horror piece really, but it really has been done with class here. And finally a sentence I hoped I would never have to write: the costumes are excellent, very evocative indeed. They call to mind power, fear and martial discipline, but at the same time make the characters seem vulnerable and ill-suited to the power they hold.
But let’s do criticism. It won’t take long, don’t worry. Firstly, the witches’ “Double, double, toil and trouble” was delivered as a song. This was horrible, and cringe worthy, as was the obsession with putting horror effects on their voices. In a film that can suggest and nod at terrible things so subtly, it seemed like massive overkill. Secondly, soliloquies into the camera: directors of Shakespeare adaptations love this, but I don’t. It seems a bit wrong, recasting grand contemplations as surreptitious ramblings. Thirdly, throwing in stock footage of oppression (Soviet?) does help to evoke Macbeth’s corruption and paranoia, but sometimes it just felt like someone had changed the channel by mistake. And finally, the adaptation does seem to pander to the suggestions in the text that there is an innate evil in femininity. Maybe it was Fleetwood’s dark performance, but it’s worth an eyebrow raise at the very least.
But in the grand scheme of things these issues don’t subtract too much from a great piece of theatrical film, and I suggest you get involved, that is you’re done siphoning off your bank account into Lord Cowell’s pockets…