For a play as well known as Macbeth, it’s surprising that there haven’t been many film adaptations. There’s Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, with Jon Finch in the lead role and Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth. There’s Orson Wells’ 1948 version, with himself as Macbeth, and Jeanette Nolan as his Lady. And there are several low-budget versions which remain shrouded in the Scottish fog. (There’s also a little-known 2005 TV movie, made for the BBC as part of a series called ShakespeaRe-Told, starring James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) This adaptation sets the story in a three-star restaurant, and is definitely worth seeing.)
But Macbeth is quite fitting for today’s audiences. Taking visual cues from Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings, this new film directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, throws itself whole-heartedly into the land and the atmosphere of Scotland. There are barren heaths, bogs, foggy landscapes, and thick brogues.
Unfortunately, there’s not much Shakespeare in this film.
At less than two hours, with a number of battle scenes, and graphic violence, there’s not a lot of time for the original text. I’d estimate that half the text has been butchered, as violently as Duncan early in the film. As such, it’s very hard to understand what’s happening, even who the characters are, if you’re not intimately familiar with the story.
It’s easy to summarize Macbeth, and a Monty Python sketch could have done so as follows. Some witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king, so he, prodded by his wife, kills Duncan (the current king) and takes the throne. But he has regrets; he’s obsessed by the prophecies of the witches, which also say that Banquo will be the father of future kings. This also leads Macbeth to have Banquo and his children killed, but he can’t face the truth of what he does. In the end, he goes the way of all the heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies. He, too, is slain, and Malcolm, Duncan’s son, takes the throne.
That’s about as much Shakespeare as we get in this film. Visually, the film is stunning, reminding me, at times, of Tarkovsky’s beautiful landscapes. Using a great deal of natural light, both indoors and out, the film is dark and dismal, with droning chromatic music that makes the viewer uncomfortable. The violence is Sam Peckinpah-like, with blood squirting in slow motion, and the overall feeling of the film is that of darkness, of a no-future society. (It’s interesting to note that the clips shown on TV are brightened compared to what I saw in a movie theater, and many of the stills on websites are also brightened.)
The play opens with a scene not that is not in the play, but that is essential to understanding Lady Macbeth. We see her and Macbeth at their child’s funeral. This is somehow intended to show that Macbeth’s rage and desire for power is perhaps based on the fact that he has no children.
But this is more or less forgotten as the movie goes ahead; or, rather, there’s no time to take it into account. Focusing so much on the atmosphere takes away from the story. It seems that Kurzel felt that the most important element of this story was the battle that Macbeth won, which, in the play, takes place just before action begins on stage. Fassbender has said that he played the part as a man with PTSD as a result of that battle. As such, Kurzel ignores the real motivations of Macbeth, and especially of Lady Macbeth, whose role in her husband’s downfall is one of the key elements of the play. Lady Macbeth becomes just a prop, with little place in the story.
One of the biggest problems in this film is the dialogue. Much of it is overdubbed in post-production, and there’s little ambient sound. The characters speak, for the most part, very softly, but their voices are amplified. As such, it’s very hard to understand what they’re saying; even more so with the thick brogues that some of the characters use. I thought at first that this was a directorial choice, but the reason may be one of practicality. In an interview on BBC News yesterday, Michael Fassbender explained how cold and windy it was when they were filming the play in Scotland. If the wind made it impossible to record dialog during filming, this explains why the voices weren’t recorded during filming in many of the scenes, but the option of re-recording the dialogue would have allowed for more normal voices. Kurzel chose to have characters croak and whisper, and this takes away much of the plot, as you really don’t know what the characters are saying much of the time.
This is a tedious film, with a story that’s hard to follow even if you do know the play. It is visually stunning, but it comes off more as an exercise than an attempt to tell Shakespeare’s story. The director was so obsessed with the way the film looks that he forgot the story. It’s Shakespeare for the Game of Thrones age. But Game of Thrones is a lot more interesting.