Shakespeare 450: Scotland, PA - Online Review

2014 marks what would have been William Shakespeare's 450th birthday. In celebration of this (and being something of a Shakespeare nut) Ben intends to spend the year taking in as many Shakespeare films as he can - from old favourites to new interpretations and everything in between.

When adapting one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies with a setting almost as famous as its plot, you might think that the choice of where to update the story to might be somewhat limited. Not so, apparently, if you’re Billy Morrissette. Currently the writer and director’s sole credit in both roles, Scotland, PA doesn't exactly go down an obvious route in appropriating Macbeth for a modern audience, relocating the story as it does to 1970s suburban Pennsylvania. Probably not the first alternate setting that springs to mind for a play that originally takes place in medieval Scotland. And yet the further into Morrissette’s film you go, the more it feels like a satisfying blend of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy and the Coens’ Fargo.

The story centres around Duncan’s Café, owned by Norm Duncan (James Rebhorn) and where Joe “Mac” McBeth (James LeGros) and his wife Pat (Maura Tierney) work low-end jobs. Morrissette initially feels unsure of his own concept, with his adaptation of the Macbeth story feeling somewhat unsteady during the opening act. An early scene setting up Mac as a well-loved local hero feels forced and fails to have the impact it needs; a first act subplot involving Pat and café manager Douglas (Josh Pais) also never satisfyingly takes off, although it is concluded swiftly and neatly.

It’s around the end of the first act, when Mac and Pat first delve into their darker sides and Christopher Walken’s vegan detective Ernie McDuff saunters into the proceedings to investigate matters, that Morrissette finds his footing and Scotland, PA really takes off. Walken provides a predictably excellent and satisfyingly quirky “Walken-esque” performance for the rest of the cast to bounce off, although the talent of the cast as a whole consistently provides one of the film’s strongest assets. LeGros and Tierney go from strength to strength as the film continues: the former demonstrating Mac’s consumption by power and paranoia brilliantly; and the latter developing Pat’s descent into insanity superbly from an element in Shakespeare’s play which often feels somewhat brief, with a burn from a fat fryer being used to great effect in place of Lady Macbeth’s hallucinatory bloodstained hands of the original.

It’s often Morrissette’s ability to blend elements of Macbeth with his own ideas that make Scotland, PA the success that it is. The writer and director’s approach always feels respectful towards Shakespeare’s play, but also shows he isn’t afraid to add something new. The strained relationship between Norm and his young sons Malcolm (Thomas Guiry) and Donald (Geoff Dunsworth) adds a dimension not seen in Shakespeare’s original. The handling of the supernatural elements of the story deliver more mixed results. The three witches, for example, are transformed into hippies (played pleasingly by Amy Smart, Andy Dick and Timothy “Speed” Levitch) and given some fantastic lines, but whose overall importance to the plot is somewhat reduced and trivialised.

True, there are elements here and there in Scotland, PA which feel forced or oversimplified - the ending hints that Morrissette wasn’t entirely sure how to bring Shakespeare’s famous twist to the modern day, forcing him to go down a simpler and ultimately less interesting route. But, as both a modern Shakespearean adaptation and a darkly comic story of murder and corruption in its own right, Morrissette’s film is both overwhelmingly satisfying and seriously enjoyable.

Keep up to date with the Shakespeare 450 series so far.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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