WRITTEN REVIEW – Macbeth (2015)
Directed by: Justin Kurzel
Written by: Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff & Michael Lesslie
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, David Thewlis, Paddy Considine & Sean Harris
Music: Jed Kurzel
Release Date: October 2nd 2015
Written sometime between 1599 and 1602 (or around a decade beforehand depending on who you ask) “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is arguably playwright William Shakespeare’s most famous play. Detailing the supernatural downfall of a war general at the hands of his own dwindling insanity and ever-present ego, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is a timeless tale of over-ambition and as a result has been performed on stage countless times over the past four centuries and has had dozens of film adaptations on both the big and small screen.
But this particular adaptation could be considered the most high-profile re-telling in recent memory and that’s mainly because this creative team, consisting of director Justin Kurzel and actors Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, will be re-teaming with each other in a year’s time for the video game movie adaptation ‘Assassin’s Creed‘. And with a strong cast and eye-catching trailers with striking imagery, the film itself has a modest level of hype behind it. Does this new interpretation of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” deliver the milk of human kindness? Or is it a tale told by an idiot?
Set in Scotland, War General Macbeth (Fassbender) and his wife Lady Macbeth (Cotillard) have just lost a child and in the wake of that tragedy, Macbeth is suffering from PTSD from all the battles he has fought. But after a successful battle against the Thane of Cawdor, Macbeth and his friend Banquo (Considine) are told by a group of witches that Macbeth will become the new Thane of Cawdor and then King of Scotland and Banquo’s sons will succeed him. These prophecies are confirmed when Macbeth returns to King Duncan (Thewlis) to be given the title of Thane of Cawdor. In order to become King, Macbeth and his wife plan to assassinate the King and try to ensure that Macbeth’s bloodline shall remain on the throne despite the prophecy stating otherwise.
Just to clarify, I have studied Shakespeare’s plays, including “The Tragedy of Macbeth” extensively. In fact, I even travelled to Poland to perform a contemporary adaptation (in setting, not language) where I portrayed King Duncan and other minor roles later on in the production. So I am very knowledgeable of the story and the dialogue. I am informing you of this now because if it wasn’t for that prior experience, I might not have gotten a lot out of this 2015 version of ‘Macbeth‘.
While certain characteristics have changed with certain characters due to their line delivery, the lines in question remain unaltered from the original text. In fact, I was baffled to learn that there are three credited writers for ‘Macbeth‘ despite none of the dialogue being original. But the language, while poetic, beautiful and full of depth and sub-text, may provide too much of a barrier for certain viewers. Not to sound like a theatre-hipster, but Shakespeare’s dialogue is like an entirely different language compared to contemporary dialect meaning that many viewers might not understand just what the hell is going on or just what Lady Macbeth means when she says “unsex me here” (it’s not what you think it means).
Basically, if you don’t know the story of Macbeth then study it or at least watch a previous adaptation so you can know what people are saying or so you at least get can the broad strokes of the story. I’ve said time and time again that if you have to read the books or the original source material or do a lot of research to understand a movie then that movie has failed as an adaptation. However, there is an exception to every rule and Shakespeare adaptations are an exception.
So, if the dialogue is pretty much the same as the original play, then what changes come from the characters? Well, typically the lead Macbeth is a cocky, egotistical, battle-hardened soldier who starts off with good intentions but quickly becomes corrupted by his own inhibitions and insecurities. ‘Macbeth‘ seeks to change that foundation within seconds of starting by opening with Macbeth and his wife attending a funeral for their baby. And Macbeth doesn’t even emote a lot during the first act of the movie.
Even his first famous monologue in the movie (“Is this a dagger which I see before me?”) is flatly performed and rather monotone, on purpose. This Macbeth starts the movie as a broken man, suffering from PTSD and when he finally comes across some good luck in the form of the Witches’ prophecy and his ascendency to the Thane of Cawdor, he is determined to keep that moment of happiness and to not relapse into complete misery. Fassbender gives a terrific performance once he starts to get out of the PTSD mind-set and can start to bite into the material a bit more and full credit to him for delivering the “Oh, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” line from Act 3 Scene 2 with a full-on grin as opposed to sheer despair.
Lady Macbeth reacts very different to the opening events of the movie and this is once again due to Marion Cotillard’s performance. With Cotillard we easily have the potential for the DEFINITIVE version of Lady Macbeth on film as she delivers the dialogue with a quiet, burning fury. Lady Macbeth is considered the first famous femme fatale in fiction (alliteration rules) and even a surface-reading of the original text pegs her as wearing the pants in the relationship and that is most certainly the case in this version (“My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white.”).
But I say Cotillard has the POTENTIAL to be the definitive version of the character because the script lets her down. “But, Trilbee!”, I hear you cry. “If thou doth state that it’s the original text in the motion-picture, then how dost the script leteth her down?”. Well that’s because there have been a lot of edits and cuts from the original play. A full version of “The Tragedy of Macbeth” traditionally takes around 150-180 minutes to perform (not including interval) and this movie version is 113 minutes long, so naturally a lot has to be cut. Unfortunately, Lady Macbeth suffers the most as her descent into madness is gutted in the 2nd and 3rd act of the film as most of it takes place off-screen. It’s a real shame because Cotillard is absolutely terrific in the movie and the reveal as to who she’s delivering her famous “Out, damned spot!” speech to from Act 5 Scene 1 is a truly haunting moment and a great re-imagining of the iconic scene. But her path to that fateful scene feels absent.
Also, while this is a problem with the original text, Macduff is a deus ex machina to wrap up the plot. A Macduff ex machina, if you will. You can get away with this narrative short-cut on the abstract nature of a stage production, but on film it doesn’t translate as well and with the scenes of his development not present in the movie then he really does come out of absolutely nowhere. There’s also a ghost that haunts Macbeth over the course of the movie; a young soldier who was killed in the opening battle. It’s clearly just a vague “Oooo! Who could it be!? DISCUSS!” piece of pandering so I’m not even going to dignify it.
Also, the line “Till he unseamed him from the nave to th’ chops” from Act 1 Scene 2 is present where a Messenger tells King Duncan how Macbeth killed the Thane of Cawdor. Basically, the English-version is that Macbeth stabbed the Thane in the waist and ran his blade upwards to his neck, essentially chopping his upper body in half. However, we clearly see Macbeth decapitate him with one sword-swing through the neck horizontally. Come on, Justin Kurzel. If you’re gonna stick to the original text at least follow-up on it through the action.
Sorry, that’s just the theatre-hipster in me coming out.
But anyway, let’s talk supporting cast. David Thewlis is perfect casting as King Duncan; an incredibly kind king who you just want to hug because who doesn’t want to hug David Thewlis? I wouldn’t have pegged Paddy Considine as Banquo but after seeing him in this movie he was incredible out-of-the-box casting. Sean Harris is under-written as Macduff though his performance is good and the same goes for Jack Reynor as Malcolm.
Those who are wondering what Justin Kurzel does with production values for the upcoming ‘Assassin’s Creed‘ movie will be pleased to know that he really brings it with ‘Macbeth‘. This is easily the most visually striking version of the Scottish Play ever put to screen with character-defining time-lapses, awesome slow-motion shots and a unique colour-palette, particularly with the climactic battle.
Incidentally, the way the Witches’ second prophecy comes to pass (“Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.” – Basically, Macbeth cannot die until a nearby forest literally moves towards his castle) is incredibly unique and feels in-keeping with the more grounded and realistic approach of this war-movie. While the action is sparse, this does feel like a bloody war movie (though more blood wouldn’t have gone amiss) and Kurzel knows when to let the visual flare take a backseat and focus on the performances and the wonderful dialogue. The make-up effects and gore are terrific, the location-work is brilliant and Jed Kurzel creates a moody score for the movie, though it’s not his best work.
If this is your first experience with “The Tragedy of Macbeth” story…you probably won’t get anything out of ‘Macbeth‘. This movie is more for those who already have an affection and respect for the source material so they can see it on the big-screen with very unique but fitting character interpretations that breath new life into a 400+ year old story that still holds up. Lady Macbeth’s character arc seemingly being edited out of the script entirely is hugely disappointing and it really should have added some of the minor scenes that establish Malcolm and Macduff more, but it still succeeds as an effective, brutal and adult character piece and Michael Fassbender does kill it in the lead role with his radically subdued interpretation. Just do your homework before sitting down to watch this.
I give ‘Macbeth‘ 4 stars out of 5.
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Posted: 9th Oct 15