For far too many people Shakespeare is seen as part of rather nebulous entity known as the English canon. His numerous plays, be they comedy, romance, history, or tragedy, are given the stuffy, highfalutin sheen of elitist art only applicable to high school English classes and snobby literati who think nothing of any substance has been published since the 1800’s. The reality is that underneath the pentameter and the prim British accents, Shakespeare was far from high entertainment of the time. The writer himself was at first considered lowly among his fellow playwrights. His comedies are laced with as crude and contrived as anything from Judd Apatow’s camp and his tragedies are as brutal as Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy. With this latest adaption of Macbeth, Justin Kurzel finds the beating heart of the Scottish play, pulls it out, holds it in front of us to behold how real and vital it is, and stuffs it back in leaving us in either disgust or awe.
Much of one’s enjoyment of any theatrical production comes in the live experience. While a movie version of Macbeth won’t have actors strutting or fretting upon the stage, what it does have is an audience. Typically, I despise anyone making noise during a movie. I have yelled at people, growled at them, I even once pointed at a person’s phone and made a throat-slashing gesture that was probably harsher than intended (it should be noted that this gesture was made in South Korea and NOT in a country where people carry guns into movie theaters for “safety”), yet for some reason the numerous people texting, checking websites, and even playing games on their phones, didn’t bother me during Macbeth. They became part of the experience. In truth, my enjoyment was only enhanced by the two dozen people who clearly had no idea what to expect when they walked into the theater subsequently walking out within the first hour of the film. I couldn’t stop smiling, even as the bodies piled and the story darkened, I couldn’t stop smiling at the cruel beauty of it all. (It should also be noted that I’ve read and studied a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays and Macbeth is easily my favorite, so there’s that.)
Perhaps the most striking feature of Kurzel’s adaptation is just how stunning its presentation is. From the opening battle of dark age armies charging across the cold battlefield, to the muted tones and fogs of the Scottish moors, to the closing clash of Macbeth and Macduff (spoilers for a 400-year-old play) set against fires so thick they blanket the world in orange light, this is a staggeringly gorgeous work. Even its ugly, and there is a lot of ugly, is beautifully gone. These are not the grand battles of high-budget historical epics, or the upright posturing of honorable war, these are the brutal experiences of a cruel time. Macbeth is a tyrant, unrepentantly so, and his deeds are splashed across the screen in all their vile glory. Battles are small scale and intimate, suitable for the time, filmed close enough to bring horror and pain to every thrust into the skin. Yet, even with all its violence, Macbeth is never gratuitous. It never falls into the trap of making an already bloody play even bloodier. Even working in one of the most bloodthirsty writers in history, Kurzel doesn’t revel in cruelty the way many modern filmmakers do (read: Tarantino). The film is visceral not in the sense of flooding the screen with internal organs, but in giving the audience a visual gut punch.
Yet for all its tough action, Macbeth is far more of an art film, with all the pretension and leaps in linear storytelling that arthouse cinema is (in)famous for. A brutal murder is intercut with images of horses tied up in the rain. Macbeth delivers his soliloquies in stuttered frames, one second speaking to an opened window, the next running across the room as though possessed by a hummingbird with OCD, and the next crouched on the floor with an empty cup of wine at his feet. Just as the film pulls no punches in its brutality, it is unapologetically loaded with abstract symbolism (non-film and Shakespeare nerd translation: weird for the sake of weird).
Whereas most Shakespearean adaptations work at getting out of the way of the language, or, at best, finding a way to enhance it, this version of Macbeth is at times in opposition to what is being said. Classic scenes, particularly Lady Macbeth’s “out, out damned spot” and Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” monologues, are interpreting in entirely new and figurative ways that some scholars may find disagreeable yet work so well within the context of a film where the duo’s descent into madness is indicated on screen instead of just in their words. Even the end offers a new and ominous take on the initial prophecy that almost demands a title card of “Macbeth II: MacBanquo.” This is not the distant, monolithic “art” of antiquity, this is a living, breathing creature that you can feel in your bones.
And much of that feeling, that visceral experience, comes from the cast rightly headlined by Michael Fassbender. MacBeth is a complex character in his transition from loyal subject to the medieval equivalent of the Terminator. Fassbender not only portrays the emotions of this change, he pushes beyond what is typically expected. The varying extremes of his performance, from stoic to schizophrenic, aren’t the forced contortions of a contracted narrative, but the natural progression of a man consumed with power, all while layering a certain macabre humor to his madness. Meanwhile, Marion Cotillard’s Lady MacBeth is easily his equal, shifting from a driven temptress to a stuttering, insane mess. Her performance of the Lady’s final speech is heartbreaking in delivery and staging. The rest of the cast, particularly Sean Harris as MacDuff and Paddy Constantine as Banquo, similarly make the most of their screen time, albeit in roles that are designed to be overshadowed.
Of the twenty-five or so people who were in the theater when my friend and I entered, only about seven remained in the end. The others, after checking their phones and playing their games, had walked out in small groups. Perhaps they were turned off by the violence, or the measured paced and abundance of talking, or the same dense language which loses many an American high schooler, but in my experience, they merely didn’t know what they were missing out on. Macbeth is not for everyone, it never has been and for them I say don’t watch, you won’t enjoy it. But for those who can appreciate the play, its alterations, and the fact that a script written in 1606 is still alive, still thumping its chest in defiance of time and fate, this is a highly entertaining experience.
As my friend noted about an hour in, after most of the theater had emptied, I couldn’t stop smiling.