Macbeth was released in the UK on the 2nd October. The US will have to wait until the 4th December.
William Shakespeare! His name alone inspires as much orgasmic eulogising in luvviedom as it does groans of boredom from the majority of high school kids across the world. It’s not hard to see why. On the one hand, Shakespeare’s astonishing ability to tackle the fundamentals of human nature with an unprecedented level of depth, insight and poetry led him to produce some of the most powerful works of drama the world has ever seen. And all from a guy hardly anyone knows anything about to the point some doubt his very existence.
But in a world where the English language is taking a right battering from the combined onslaught of social media and the ‘O(h)M(y)G(od)-innit’ brigade, Shakespeare’s complex tales of murder, courtly intrigue and tragic romance become nigh-on impenetrable when wrapped up in a thick layer of ye-olde-English prose and iambic pentameters.
“M’lady. Didst it hurt thee much?”
“Whenst thou plummeted from the heavens.”
“Oh, do shut up.”
It wasn’t easy even when I was at school, and it was only when I got to college and my critical faculties had evolved somewhat, did I garner a true appreciation of Shakespeare’s literary skills. And yet out of all the plays I was forced to study during my education, Macbeth was not one of them. So when it was announced that my number one man crush Michael Fassbender was going to play the mad Scottish king under the directorial auspices of celebrated Aussie wunderkind Justin Kurzel, I booked my ticket straight away and dragged my willing wife along for the ride.
However, despite having a vague notion of the plot, I was relatively unfamiliar with one of Shakespeare’s most infamous tragedies. All I knew was that it was a play with such dark connotations that to superstitious luvvies even saying its name threatened to bring forth a chronic case of the bad-lucks. In theatrical circles it is routinely referred to as ‘The Scottish Play.’ Therefore, I feared the subsequent review would be somewhat lacking, as I could only approach the movie purely on its cinematic terms. How it succeeded as an adaptation of one of the world’s most enduring plays I hadn’t a clue. And I wasn’t about to go and gen up on all things Scottish by reading the play and scouring the internet because nightmarish homework flashbacks would probably send me into a pit of depression of Shakespearean proportions.
Which would look a bit like this.
So thank my lucky stars that my wife Karen, who is not only incredibly beautiful, intelligent and filth on wheels, is also a brilliant and highly experienced/respected English teacher, and cites Macbeth as one of her favourites to teach. Her opinion on the latest cinematic interpretation of a much revered classic is probably even more relevant than mine, so I thought it would be better structuring the ensuing critical thought-splurge as a talking heads two-hander, so to speak. Here’s hoping together we can give the film its due, both in terms of how it holds up in this day and age, and how well it translates to the screen – without descending into giggle-fits before wondering what we’re going to have for tea – as per usual.
Oh, and if you’re not that familiar with Macbeth, and want to go into the film cold, you might want to skip this review as it may wander into spoilerific territory. Then again, that’s your fault for not being well-read. But to help you illiterates out, here’s the plot straight from IMDb’s gob.
James: So my love, how did you find the film? Was it a successful adaptation of the play?
Karen: Yeah, it was good. I thought the opening scene of the battle between the Scots and the Norwegians was particularly arresting, and refrained from going too Matrixy with slo-mo and blood-spurting.
James: Well, there was a little bit of that, but it wasn’t hyper-stylised by any means and didn’t over-shadow the dramatic undercurrents.
Karen: I liked the fact it focused on individuals, with that young lad he seemed to take under his wing whose tragic end would eventually affect him so much. Which made it all the more poignant that Macbeth inspired such devotion in his followers and then turned into this despot. In the end, had you seen him eating people you probably wouldn’t have been surprised.
Also, if you think about the time the play was written, people totally believed in witchcraft. This was just before the Salem witch trials and Macbeth is partially based on a 13th century legend. Many of Shakespeare’s plays were based on historical events and legends like Julius Caesar and Troilus and Cressida.
Also Trainspotting. Choose Life. Choose to Listen to Your Nagging Wife and Murder Your King to Assume the Throne. Choose Hubris. Lots of Hubris.
James: What about Fassbender as Macbeth?
Karen: The interesting thing about Michael Fassbender’s portrayal was it had a real hero to zero quality to it. He was so brave on the battlefield, caked in blood and mud, even though it was his job. But one thing I think this adaptation implied and was really intriguing, and one that I had never thought about before, was the notion that Macbeth was suffering from PTSD. Then on top of that you have both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth still reeling from the death of their only child, and it’s a great set up for the decisions they eventually make. They are suffering, but not united in their suffering and maybe they think killing King Duncan will unite them in their suffering. But it does the exact opposite. It’s also interesting that Lady Macbeth only allows Macbeth his conjugal rights when he agrees to kill Duncan.
James: Although admittedly I have a huge man crush on Michael Fassbender, I thought he was mesmerising as Macbeth. You watch with a combination of morbid fascination and abject horror at Macbeth’s transformation from noble, principled soldier to murderous, paranoid tyrant – made all the more disturbingly credible thanks to Fassbender’s towering performance. It must have been exhausting too as he’s on screen nearly the whole time.
Then you have Marion Cotillard’s grief and guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth. It’s interesting that the character is usually synonymous with any generic scheming, manipulative bitch. But Cotillard’s interpretation extracts the complexity inherent in her character. She’s not as instrumental in the eventual tragic proceedings as I had assumed. Her Lady Macbeth is an ambitious, power-hungry woman who you assume is the puppet master, but inadvertently unleashes a tyrant she can’t control and, reeling with guilt to the point of insanity as Macbeth becomes more insane through ambition, is actually the architect of both her and her husband’s downfall.
Karen: Who was to blame for Macbeth’s eventual downfall is a very common essay question. Is it Macbeth himself? Lady Macbeth? The witches? You could argue any of them. The “Blame Women” line seems to be a rather commonly held perception, although that’s not the case if you were to argue this from a feminist perspective.
“Thou couldst have tidied up a bit, though.”
James: Well, that “Pfft. Women, eh?” line of thinking is a cop out. I think the film is slightly less ambiguous as to who is to blame for Macbeth’s downfall, but the viewer needs to discover this for themselves.
Karen: There is a line in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth says to her husband, “Look like th’innocent flower, but be the serpent under’t.” She is encouraging Macbeth’s buried ambition, but it drags something dark along with it that no one was prepared for and manifests itself as despotism.
James: Then you have MI:5 baddie Sean Harris as Macduff and Paddy Considine as Banquo providing suitably intense support. Also interesting is that these supporting male characters are all family men with wives and children. Children is something of a sore point for the Macbeths as we have already mentioned. Perhaps all the images of fatherhood, from father-like King Duncan and the perceived virility of his friends and confidantes emasculates him as much as Lady Macbeth does. Maybe the only way he can prove his masculinity is through domination and murder.
How does it compare to other adaptations you have seen?
Karen: Macbeth on the Estate, which was a modern-day retelling set in Birmingham’s Ladywood council estate involving rival drug dealers speaking in thick, Brummie accents as far away from Laurence Olivier as you could get, actually worked really well. It was a very good adaptation and refrained from dumbing down by using nigh-on the same script. The Roman Polanski one was good as well although I remember my Year 9s asking me to rewind all the gory bits when I used to show them it in class. Then there was the RSC one with Ian McKellen and Judy Dench which looks a bit dated now but was still good.
James: Other famous filmmakers like Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa and even excellent racist DW Griffiths have all had a stab at the Thane of Scotland to varying degrees of success. I must admit I’ve only seen Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (which is based on Macbeth and is predictably awesome). But for me, when Shakespeare’s done right, there’s nothing that can come close to the sheer intensity and emotional power of the ensuing theatrics, and Kurzel’s interpretation is done right. This is serious, towering, monumental, awards-worthy drama that refuses to descend into a fit of the elitist Larry Olivier’s. So thankfully there’s no OTT grandiose gestures and “Sirrah my good fellow” and “Oh, the pain of it all” type hyper-gesticulating performances chock-full of pompous rhetoric. The delivery of the lines is more natural, freeing the emotional depth permeating every scene, which helps immeasurably in terms of the interpretation of events and characters.
“Now men! Chant after me. Ooohh…let’s…get them. Grrrr!”
Because, like all serious Shakespeare, it makes no concessions for modern day audiences. This isn’t a fun Friday night popcorn flick. You really need to concentrate on the Early Modern English dialogue, made even more impenetrable by the cast swathing their lines in thick, Scottish accents (although Cotillard’s floats between her native French and a vague Scots Gaelic-tinge). Either way, my advice is keep your ears and brain open. Not that it should dumb down by any means, but being unfamiliar with some aspects of the play, a few of the ensuing (and very important) events were a bit vague and I needed you to fill in some of the gaps.
Karen: Yes. Your enjoyment of any Shakespeare adaptation depends on how well you know the play. Interestingly, when showing my classes cinematic adaptations of Romeo and Juliet, I’ve shown them the Baz Luhrmann flashy version and the Franco Zeffirelli more traditional version. They prefer the latter because they resent the notion that kids will only like Shakespeare if it’s stuffed full of Leo DiCaprios and gun fights – implying they’re all fed on a diet of MTV and have attention spans of goldfish. Luhrmann’s version is too caught up with the visuals. You don’t have to dumb down or Disney-fy. In fact, pitch up to it and credit your audience with some intelligence. That’s what Zeffirelli did. The action in his interpretation is more straightforward, more subtle.
James: It’s good that Justin Kurzel decided to mix the traditional setting with more modern filmmaking techniques, so you get the best of both worlds. It also helps that his trio of scripters (Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso) provided him with an intelligent, innovative adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s most psychologically complex tales. Oh. And the cinematography by Adam Arkapaw is stunning, with the harsh, bleak and yet beautiful Isle of Skye landscapes almost being a character in itself.
Karen: Oh, do shut up.
“What? Look. Here’s the landscape being a character.”
James: Sorry. But in all seriousness, Macbeth got the balance right. It’s a harsh, brutal play, set in a harsh, brutal world. Arakapaw’s use of filters to denote mood (all sickly yellows and vivid reds which I presume signals anything from impending doom, psychological breakdown, death, rage, danger, tragedy?), swirling mists, flurries of snow, emphasises a raw, unsubtle beauty and almost surreal dream-like quality.
Karen: Yes. It’s called Pathetic Fallacy. Actually, Banquo at one point ponders, “Have we eaten on the insane root?” which would lend credence to the more hallucinatory aspects of this film.
James: You are such an English teacher. Although I have always liked that life’s-a-stage extended metaphor Macbeth line, “It is a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” Something that Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth couldn’t be accused of. Like all good tragedies, death begets death leading to an emotionally devastating conclusion where things don’t end happily for anyone. Being respectful of the source material, this is full-blooded, uncompromising, intelligent, classy drama that gets to the heart of all the metaphors and meanings inherent in one of the greatest plays ever written – all melded to dynamic filmmaking technique that has ‘give me some awards’ written all over it.
Karen: You are such a film nerd.
James: And all this from a gang who’ll next be tackling the base-jumping video game antics of Assassin’s Creed. Talk about going from one cultural extreme to another.
Karen: I have no idea what you’re talking about. Anyway, what do you want for tea? ‘Cos you’ll have to make it as I’ve got marking to do.
James: Takeaway it is, then.