by Matt Levine
Although part of me wants to champion one of Shakespeare’s obscurer tragedies as the playwright’s finest (Antony and Cleopatra, maybe), I have to admit that Macbeth remains for me his finest achievement, not to mention a prototype of sorts for what I seek in dramatic works of art. When I think of my favorite pieces of fiction, their shared elements also serve as a checklist of Macbeth’s strongest features: a swiftness and brevity that injects theme and character into the action (it is Shakespeare’s shortest play); a haunting tone that straddles gritty realism and dark glimmers of horror and the supernatural; a political condemnation of weak-minded rulers and the viciousness of their ambition; a bleak existentialism that suggests the senselessness of life and the insignificance of human beings in the universe; and an excess of style that heightens reality instead of conveying it matter-of-factly.
Director: Justin Kurzel
Producers: Iain Canning, Laura Hastings-Smith, Emile Sherman
Writers: Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso, William Shakespeare (play)
Cinematographer: Adam Arkapaw
Editor: Chris Dickens
Music: Jed Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Lochlann Harris, Hilton McRae, David Thewlis, David Hayman, Jack Reynor, Brian Nickels, James Harkness, Ross Anderson, Sean Harris, Maurice Roëves, Elizabeth Debicki
Premiere: May 23, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: December 4, 2015
US Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Clearly, Macbeth’s bold and sinister tone also appealed to some of the greatest film directors in history. In 1948, Orson Welles’ Macbeth offered a textbook example in achieving a nightmarish vision on a shoestring budget (it was shot over 23 days for $700,000). Akira Kurosawa, having achieved worldwide fame by 1957, turned Macbeth into Throne of Blood, one of the director’s most stunning films. And for his first film since the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, by the Manson Family, Roman Polanski decided to adapt Macbeth (1971), achieving one of his most underrated and appropriately disturbing visions of human depravity. All of these adaptations are remarkable in different ways, adding to the grim potency of Shakespeare’s original.
Now we can add another solid adaptation to the crowded list: Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth enlists the aid of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (not to mention a stellar ensemble) in giving life to these characters and their violent impulses. There’s no shortage of lavish stylistics, either, as Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography and Chris Dickens’ editing make the most of the film’s gruesome combat scenes and hallucinatory visits from witches and phantom daggers. And yet, in the end, this latest Macbeth can’t be described as much more than solid or occasionally inspired; it feels burdened by the weight of Shakespeare, by the filmmakers’ apparent need to create something that lives up to its literary stature. It takes too literally Macbeth’s description of a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.
The story is indeed timeless, as the vile, power-hungry ambitions of rulers and politicians will never be an outdated theme. Even so, Kurzel and his team of screenwriters (Jacob Kosskof, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso) make some striking changes to the plot. The film begins not with the witches (or the “weird sisters”) meeting, but with the bracing image of a dead child on a funeral pyre, its eyes covered with coins. The boy turns out to be Macbeth’s son, thus partially explaining what happened to the child that Lady Macbeth says she has suckled later on (no reason is given for the child’s disappearance in the play). It’s a powerful opening to the film and a moving (if simplistic) justification for the callousness of Lady Macbeth and her husband, who might reasonably see political power as their only remaining aim following the death of their child.
Before Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his fellow soldier Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter the three witches, there is a battle scene filmed (like much of the movie) in shades of dreary blue and fiery orange. Kurzel doesn’t skimp on the gore in this prologue, which utilizes a grab-bag of aesthetic tricks—fast-and-slow motion, layered sound design, rapid jump cuts, graceful tracking shots—to convey the madness of war. Although some of this seems like arthouse affectation, it undeniably evokes Macbeth’s already-withering mind, apparently unable to withstand the carnage that surrounds him.
When Macbeth and Banquo meet the "weird sisters" on the moors—again in a dreary color palette, with cold compositions of Kubrickian symmetry—he is told that he is destined to be the King of Scotland, while Banquo’s progeny will itself spawn a line of kings. Returning to his castle at Inverness, Macbeth confers with his wife about this strange prophecy; Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) goads him on, emasculating him (“screw your courage to the sticking-place”), and hatches a scheme whereby Macbeth will slaughter King Duncan and frame his chamberlains for the murder. Lady Macbeth is a famously difficult and complex role, and previous versions of Macbeth have struggled to avoid making her a simplistic conniving femme fatale; the casting of Marion Cotillard among a largely British cast is ingenious in implicitly suggesting an otherness, a loneliness, that might justify political ambition as her all-consuming endpoint. Decked in astounding makeup and costumes, Cotillard fares better than Fassbender here, providing a sorely-needed emotional undercurrent as Macbeth becomes increasingly bloodthirsty; her look of horror as her husband burns an entire family alive might be the movie’s most powerful scene. The film also deviates from the play in that Lady Macbeth’s “out, damned spot!” monologue takes place in a church with no one else around, while she is clearly awake (instead of sleepwalking as in the original); it’s an intriguing change, asserting that Lady Macbeth is in control of her faculties (mostly) and undergoing a severe spiritual crisis, adding layers of complexity and shame that Cotillard fully explores.
Other changes include a scene in which Macbeth himself executes Macduff’s family, setting fire to his wife and children (the nadir of Macbeth’s bloodlust and paranoia); and having Great Birnam Wood “come to Dunsinane Hill” when it’s torched by British armies, flecks of ash floating across the screen in a bright fulminatory blaze. Generally, Kurzel emphasizes the play’s horror undertones and harshly condemns Macbeth’s tyrannical ambition, a quest for power which is seen as inherent in humanity’s evolutionary makeup—certainly valuable themes in an age of Donald Trump fascism and racist police states.
But if the film's embrace of Shakespeare's existential horror is admirable, the film falls short in other notable ways. Michael Fassbender surprisingly fails to impress in a juicy role, although this might be more the fault of Kurzel than the actor: much of the cast seems to have been told to act solemn and dreary at all times, thus eliminating the pathos underlying much of the poetic dialogue. The most egregious failure here is Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, which I would argue is one of the most incredible pieces of writing ever; yet, uttered in a gruff monotone that suggests Macbeth is too far gone to recognize the weight of his words, this monologue has little emotional impact. Perhaps Justin Kurzel, with only his second feature film (following 2011’s Snowtown), was overly desperate to prove how weighty and serious he wanted the movie to be; Shakespeare adaptations are not an easy assignment regardless of how experienced the director is. This overarching tone also hampers a climactic scene that should be viscerally overwhelming, but becomes surprisingly turgid thanks to its glacial pace (hopefully next time Kurzel and his editor will not inject several seconds of pause between every line of dialogue as a bid for seriousness).
In a way, perhaps the legacy of Macbeth is this film’s greatest enemy; with masterful versions by Welles, Kurosawa, and Polanski before him, Kurzel simply can’t muster those films’ idiosyncratic power. No matter this version’s strengths, the nagging question of why hovers over the entire thing: why did this play need to be adapted for 2015? What did the filmmakers think they needed to bring to it this time around? Not every film needs to have an urgent impetus for its production, but adapting a Shakespearean classic for the umpteenth time should bring with it more vitality than Kurzel’s reiteration.
But I realize this is an unfair expectation. There’s still much to recommend in this version of Macbeth: Cotillard’s performance, the timelessness of the story and the dialogue, the haunting (if overly antiseptic) cinematography. And if the film’s climax disappoints, its final images are astounding: two different characters, both fated to be king, brandishing swords and running into the distance. It’s to the movie’s credit that this ending could either be a glimpse of hope for the future or a sobering reminder that political power steers men and women towards tyrannical violence—that it’s in our nature to kill and oppress for the sake of a metaphorical throne.