I was completely unaware that a big screen adaptation of the Scottish play was in the works for 2015 until the trailer splashed up on the big screen before another film I was seeing, and it took roughly four seconds for me to decide that I wanted to watch it as soon as possible. The striking visuals evident in the promotion, the stellar looking cast – not least Michael Fassbender, well on course to becoming a Hollywood legend – and that score, it all sucked me faster than you can say “Thunder and lightning, enter three witches”. But I’ve been burned by Shakespearian adaptations before. Could Justin Kurzel’s vision for Shakespeare’s tragedy do all that was promised, or was Macbeth just another lifeless reliving of well-trod steps?
Having put down a rebellion that threatened the rule of King Duncan (David Thewlis), Scottish nobleman Macbeth (Fassbender) receives a visitation from a group of mysterious women, who prophesise that he “shall be King hereafter”. Driven by this prediction, and the urgings of his manipulative wife (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth embarks on a course of murder and madness.
It’s always a bit hard offering any kind of critique on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, since millions of words have already been written on the story. Instead, it is possible, and preferable, to focus on other things, such as Kurzel’s own unique vision, the changes he makes and the things that he adds. With that, I’m also going to be discussing details of all aspects of the film, so sort of spoilers ahead, I guess.
And a big one occurs right from the top, as the film, in a lengthy silent opening, first introduces the titular noble and his wife burying their child on a cold Scottish moor. This simple addition grants a great deal of depth to Lady Macbeth that did not fully exist before: suddenly her intense quest to fulfil the prophecy and see her husband crowned King has an added layer of tragedy, as it becomes a mission to avoid her own grief and displace it with something far more dangerous.
From there, it’s into a gruesome battle sequence – which, of course, only was mentioned in the play – where Macbeth and Banquo lead a ragtag army of grizzled veterans and teenage reinforcements against those rebelling against the King. A mix of truly brutal sword swinging, slow-mo portraits and hellish screams mark the encounter, which serves to show Macbeth as a fearless demon in battle, as well as establishing the truly grimy surrounds that Macbeth will take place in. Everything is dirty and sodden, from the clothes on characters backs to the mud smeared on their faces as a battle emblem. Macbeth is stuck by the sight of a young warrior being struck down, barely old enough to shave, and this sight haunts, as his dead child haunts his wife. The cinematography, the limited use of music and the sombre atmosphere all jump out at the viewer: despite victory, Macbeth and Banquo are left dealing with the wounded and corpses by the time the witches come to speak their famous piece, with mud and blood and dirt everywhere. Banquo laughter at the idea that Macbeth shall be King, and that he “shall get Kings” seems all the more believable in the grim surrounds, as far from Kingship as you can get.
I don’t want to let that go by without more notice. Macbeth is simply grime infested. You can almost imagine the stink emanating from certain scenes. It isn’t just the realistic date setting either: everyone is dirty, nobody is clean, and I think that Kurzel really wants us to feel that. No water can clear these people of their deeds, everyone is in the mire, and nobody is guiltless in the events that unfold, not even the children, with the visions of Lady Macbeth’s dead child also spotted and unkempt, as if just being in the presence of the other characters is enough to soil and infect.
I suppose Macbeth moves along the expected path from there for the most part, bar a few cut characters, like Donalbain, and a few clever alterations here and there. The sequence surrounding the assassination of Duncan is a grim dance between flickering lights and gloomy shadows, as the revelry in one tent is contrasted with the critical prodding of Lady Macbeth to her husband in another.
Indeed, the whole production wavers between achingly bright vistas filled with drab rocks and endless moors, and those night time scenes where the fire of candles casts ghostly darkness as well as light. The adding of a sexual element to Lady Macbeth’s diffusing of Macbeth’s doubts creates a new layer of manipulation to her already iconically manipulative character, one that may not have been totally necessary really.
Macbeth’s ascendance and growing insanity does have its good and bad points. The good of course, is Fassbender’s performance, but the bad might be the way that everything goes over the top. Macduff’s family are still murdered, but the manner in which is happens is rather extreme. Banquo is still killed, but Macbeth’s reaction in the famous feast scene appears more awkward than captivating, the whole sequence having just a kind of wrong feel to it.
I think what it is, is that Macbeth needs to be a bit greater for a bit longer. His stubborn resistance to outside forces would require some support after all, and while an obvious central theme to the later part of the play is the way that everyone and anyone abandons Macbeth, I still feel that some restraint in sections might have better shown why and how he was able to get into the position he got into, and stay there for as long as he did.
That’s a fairly minor complaint in the grand scheme of things really though. The finale is everything that you would expect of the source material: Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane in a delightfully unique way, that adds to the demonic aura that surrounds much of the production, and a man of no woman born comes face to face with Macbeth in a final duel, that matches the intensity of the opening combat, but with just two participants. Macbeth goes to the lowest point of his journey, but then seems to rise again briefly, once more the man full of such righteous fury as he tackled the King’s enemies. But he has gone too far and lost too much: confronted with the final culmination of the prophecy of the “weird sisters”, he loses the last of his composure, and falls, in a scene that makes things as intimate as they can be between Macbeth and Macduff. Indeed, “intimate” is a good word for much of the violence that marks Kurzel’s Macbeth, with the titular characters death deliberately (I’m sure) matching some of the visual elements of Duncan’s earlier.
The final shots are interesting, calling back to the closing moments of Roman Polanski’s version, as Malcolm and Fleance are juxtaposed with each other, and another round of bloodletting in the not too distant future appears likely. Malcolm has retaken the throne, but barely through his own doing, while Fleance is still destined to be a King. This grim and rather downbeat ending, characterised by a hellish race into a hazy red landscape, fits the rest of the play and its innate darkness rather nicely.
Fassbender is immense in the titular role of course, from that opening battle scene all the way through to his final titanic combat with Macduff. Kurzel wants us to really see the way that Macbeth changes. His initial depiction is of a drab, intense but basically loyal individual, who would be boring if he never changed: but as the machinations of his wife begin and the slippery slope to madness opens up before him, Fassbender’s Macbeth does change. His insanity is off the insidious creepy variety: flashes of anger are at a minimum, and instead there is a much quieter journey to immorality and sin. Fassbender clearly delights ion the transition, and as the bloody tyrant on the throne, he encapsulates the vision that must be presented for the audience to both fear and be transfixed by the witches chosen man. So powerful is the performance that the understated delivery of arguably the plays most famous lines – “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” might actually disappoint.
Lady Macbeth remains the prime mover of the action, at least in the first half of the production. Cotillard is one of the finest actresses of her generation, and if she was born to play any role in Shakespeare, it must be this one. Her Lady is a dazzlingly array of malevolence incarnate: between the use of all out seduction and goading taunts, between praise and insults, Cotillard fills her up with all of the necessary devilishness, but it does always come back to that opening scene, and the heartbreak of a woman who has seen the guiding focus of her life taken away from her, and seems to cast off all thoughts of morals and purity because of it. And when the situation gets away from her, Cotillard makes us feel the way that Lady Macbeth changes, her horror at her husband’s growing litany of misdeeds, and her eventual repentance.
Other cast members are naturally limited next to the main two, but everyone is putting in a decent shift. Paddy Considine’s Banquo is full of regrets right from the off by his look, his friendship with Macbeth marked more by silent companionship than outright camaraderie, which works really well, especially in the lead-up to Macbeth’s betrayal. Sean Harris’ Macduff is a little worse, not much more than the anger that engulfs him after his family’s murder, and the final combat lacked a little something because of that. And there is David Thewlis too, a fine King Duncan, depicted in faux-saintly terms, as a man acting greater than he is, susceptible to cutting down.
It is the immense cinematography that is Macbeth’s true shining point though. The lonely and desolate environments of Scotland simply fill the screen in a manner that really makes the audience understand the vastness that is on display. The people, in contrast, seem small and tiny. Interiors are deceptively simple, and Kurzel does amazing work in his choices between the up close and fluid contrasting with the distant and static. I’ve already praised the immense lighting work, but there is also the effective, limited use of slow motion, while that finale, taking place in a maelstrom of fire and smoke, brings a grand feeling of epicness to what is really a very personal clash. The occasional emphasis on red – blood red – also adds something very important, and the sight of young Fleance fleeing, his father’s sword in hand, into that red haze at the conclusion is one that will stick long in the memory.
Kurzel’s Macbeth is certainly “a tale full of sound and fury”, but it signifies a hell of a lot. Fassbender embodies Macbeth totally, while Cotillard brings us a Lady Macbeth with an additional layer of humanity to add to the layers of mischief, deceit and double0dealing. The supporting cast shines, the music is suitably mournful and dirge-like, and the visual direction is sublime. While there could have been some restraint at points in certain aspects, missteps are rare enough here. Adding in where he can and chopping where it is necessary, Kurzel really has crafted a wonder of Shakespearian adaptation in his Macbeth, one that rightfully enters the canon among the other greats. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of The Weinstein Company).