PLAYED to an eerily violent perfection by Michael Fassbender, in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth we see a character study of a man who is simultaneously a compelling and charismatic leader, an affectionate spouse and a consummate soldier whose violent urges and opportunistic principles ultimately lead to a believable, inevitable descent into disorder. Assuredly familiar territory for one of the most famous and distinctive plays in history, but what Kurzel really builds upon in this new production is a sense that Macbeth is not only moulded by time, place and station, but also by the nihilistic certainty of violence in a world like that of Dark Ages Alba, and the inescapably corrupting influences of such horror upon the psyche of a nation’s champions and leaders. Again, hardly ground-breaking territory in the context of modern adaptation, but this is a thoroughly composite and effective production nevertheless.
The coldness of this cruel, beautifully captured world is immediately brought to the fore as Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) delivers a dead child to the funeral pyre while Macbeth is away leading his men on the warpath. We are immediately provided with a quasi-historical expository setting: This is medieval Scotland, and the country is locked in a brutal civil war against unyielding, perpetually hostile opposing factions and the residing King Duncan (David Thewlis) has had his support bled dry.
Sending all his remaining reserves – grizzled old men and fresh-faced boys – to support Macbeth, his most trusted general, he stakes all on a final battle which will decide the fate of the ailing country. Unlike a set-piece LOTR or Hobbit CGI extravaganza with legions of perfectly synchronised archers (or warhogs…), this is much more a visceral brawl with grubby peasants garrotting rival lairds and half-blind old men smashing boy’s heads in with heavy rocks.
The allusions to PTSD and the effect of war on both personal and national morality and sanity is evident as early as these principle scenes. As Macbeth walks among the violence, seemingly unaffected by the surrounding bloodbath, we are already convinced that this is not a normal or healthy man, and hardly one who could ever thrive in peacetime. Ultimately, Macbeth takes the initiative and dispatches the rival prince’s retinue before summarily executing the barely resisting general in grizzly fashion.
A lot of the criticism I’ve heard in regard to this production concerns the film making very limited use of some excellent cast: Considine and Thewlis are, of course, notably relieved at an early injuncture, and Malcome (Jack Raynor) has, perhaps, one line? However, for that I’d have to lay the blame at Shakespeare’s feet, since Macbeth, like much of Shakespeare, pays especial attention to its protagonist as a character study, and it is their actions that drive the events of the play.
Moreover, the loss of a recognisable actor, as much as that of an important character, has that much more of an impact on Macbeth’s audience. As for Malcome, he’s ultimately more of a symbol of a return to supposed order, than a developed independent character; and the film plays upon this trope of a tragic solace in the return to an apparently secure governing dynasty quite cleverly. I won’t say more than that it’s an ending which is similar to, and similarly confusing as, the ending to Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999) but rather better executed.
The majority of abridgements are largely unnoteworthy and, therefore, positive. Though we miss out on excellent segments of wordplay (including the Porter’s soliloquy), it must be said that their inclusion in a cinematic adaptation has generally been detrimental, slowing down the action and breaking the tone. Such lulls are important and useful in a longer stage production, but they aren’t especially missed here.
It would be remiss of me not to promote the film for some fantastic cinematography and use of costume. It’s worth seeing the film just for these facets alone, as the landscapes, all shot in England and Scotland, perfectly capture a rugged and uncultivated realm, where armies and villagers alike scarce dare march a few days from their towns and castles for fear of being swallowed up in the almost supernatural mists. Monolithic, Gormenghastian stone fortresses meld into the landscape, like the dens of a strange and terrible beast.
The costuming is similarly exquisite. I’m not sure why a regal Lady Macbeth (Cotillard) has turquoise eyeliner but it looks great, and like everything else it casts just the right note of unearthly strangeness; like watching a tapestry come to life. Bedecked nobles and bishops stand in fine attendance to Macbeth, like unmoving, otherworldly statues. These cut a remarkable contrast to Macbeth’s early scenes, with Macbeth a lowly minor theign: where his holdings consist of a humble wooden fort and hamlet amid a boggy moor – more like a war camp than a permanent town – and his daily wartime life consists of ceaseless marching punctuated by visceral skirmishes.
Perhaps the most surprising element in this new, less-than-chirpy, production is the characterisation and functionality of the witches. Seldom have they appeared so benign, they’re worlds away from the cackling and semi-comical hags of yore which James I cacked his britches over; neither do they bear any resemblance to the steely nurses of Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth (2010). Kurzel instead chooses to portray them as three peasant women in commoners’ garb, wholly ordinary save for pagan markings or slits on their faces and the cold, but not unsympathetic, certainty of their intonation.
It’s an odd yet striking effect: three women, symbolically portrayed in three different stages of a woman’s life (a crone, a mother, a maid) – along with, uniquely, an infant girl – who are largely silent observers amongst the all-encompassing bloodshed. We are reminded that though it is the menfolk who fight and die unceasingly at their lords’ behest, these women too must equally bear witness to war’s horrors and bear its scars.
In providing Macbeth with the knowledge that will ultimately lead to his downfall, and that of all he had ever held dear, there is no discernible malice in these witches towards him, or all those other lordlings who have led their folk into slaughter. Nor do they appear to have any anarchistic ambitions towards promoting general chaos; they are merely imparting what becomes inevitable. Here, Macbeth is, from the beginning, already so broken that, once he has tasted the blood of those he once respected, he is inevitably driven to crave more.
This is the main distinction drawn between the character of Macbeth and his lady throughout this adaptation, where Lady Macbeth is initially the main motivator: a seductive and reproving viper compelling Macbeth to break with his principles and slay his liege. Since, in her mind, he owes greater homage to her and himself as the founder of their station and successes, she is finally unable to bear the guilt of the bloodletting she has been party to. Macbeth, by contrast, already a killer – if a licensed one – devolves to a near-mindless butcher once the oaths and codes that had bound him to a tenuous sanity are broken. This is most vividly realised in his execution of MacDuff’s family, which is made into a horrible ceremony; more an unnatural sacrifice to ease Macbeth’s paranoia than an act of pseudo-civil justice.
As a consequence, partly of the abridged runtime, as well as the deathly stillness of his surroundings, we feel that Macbeth is never really left at peace from the ghosts which surround him. Though the appearance of Banquo (Paddy Considine) at his coronation feast is still as poignant a scene as ever it was in stage play, here Banquo is perhaps just another mark on Macbeth’s ghostly tally; to the point where the viewer must wonder, like Macbeth himself, just how many of those silently attending on him are still of this world.
Rather like Come and See, this is a world where the living must ultimately envy the dead, though here it is less macabre and dehumanising. Instead, the emphasis is on a very human, albeit medieval mindset, where people absorb the suffering they witness and mete out, are constantly aware of the judgement of history, and yet are ill prepared to endure obscurity any better than infamy. A truly dark envisagement of the darkest play in history’s greatest playwright’s repertoire. No one gets served up in a pie, but at its core there’s a callousness to the language and character of Macbeth that can be more harrowing than any horror.