Like many of the staff members on My Entertainment World, I love Shakespeare. I love reading his plays, I love reading about him, but most of all, I love watching adaptations of his work. So when I heard they were doing another rendition of Macbeth, one of my top 5 favorite Shakespeare plays, you can imagine my delight. The cast was solid, they were doing it in a historically accurate time-period, and the trailer promised a brutal, visceral experience. What could go wrong?
Everything. The answer is everything.
(“Spoilers” ahead. I’m not sure how much I can spoil a 400 year old play, but I’m also going to discuss things particular to this adaptation. You have been warned).
Now I am not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare adaptations. I’m not going to sit there with annotated copy of the original script, and go, “Excuse me, but you changed line 186 in Act IV, scene III; you’re an embarrassment to mankind. Go live in a cave and think about what you have done.” Things change adaptation by adaptation, sometimes for the better. Directors have to make decisions for what makes sense for their particular interpretation. That’s fine. Great, even. However, in this adaptation, there were a few changes that stood out because they made so little sense. I would love to read the director’s notes to understand his thought-process, because right now, a lot of his changes are jarring.
Two cut scenes speak to some broader problems with this Macbeth. They cut the porter scene. You know, the one with the drunken porter making knock-knock jokes. Fine. It’s not strictly necessary – it was mostly there for a bit of comedic relief right before Duncan’s body is discovered. Lady Macduff’s scene with her son was also cut. Again, what they talk about isn’t strictly relevant to the plot, but it shows Lady Macduff as a nurturing, mothering figure, with her innocent, precocious kid right before they’re horrifically murdered. Macduff is told about his family’s tragic deaths later, so this scene isn’t necessary plot-wise. But it is a tender moment in an otherwise brutal play. It stirs these things called emotions. Because when the audience feels things, they get a little more invested in the plot.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is humorless and emotionless. I’m not hung up on the porter scene or Lady Macduff scene. What bothers me is when Kurzel cut them out, he did it so quickly that they couldn’t infect the rest of the movie with the humor or emotional pull they represent.
It’s mind boggling that an all-star cast could give such flat performances in such a dynamic play. The delivery for almost every line is the same. It sounds like a read-through, or a recitation of the lines, not a movie starring acclaimed actors. In the few scenes when the actors are allowed to unleash, their outbursts don’t feel organic or natural. It feels like Kurzel remembered that these are characters who should feel things, so for one or two scenes, he let his actors emote.
If the problem was just stilted dialogues, cut by fantastic monologues, perhaps this movie could be salvaged but Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s famous soliloquies are delivered…to ghosts? The film opens with the Macbeths burning the corpse of a baby, whom I assume is meant to be their child. It is to this dead baby that Lady Macbeth delivers her famous “out damned spot” speech. (Her “unsex me here” soliloquy luckily isn’t given to her dead baby but it’s flat and devoid of raw feeling). The “out damned spot” is the culmination of Lady Macbeth’s guilt and madness. She should be wandering the halls of Dunsinane, frantically scrubbing out imaginary blood spots in her hand. Is that what Marion Cotillard does? No. She rides back to her old house, sits on the floor and whispers to a dead baby ghost. Why? Who knows. It erases the urgency and madness and feels entirely too calm.
There is also a young teenager Macbeth helps get ready for a great battle against Macdonwald. The boy is then killed. Given the special attention Macbeth pays to his body, then the fact that he is haunted by the boy, I assume the boy was his son. To be fair to Kurzel, the dead kid monologue thing worked in Macbeth’s case, especially in Macbeth’s monologue about a floating dagger. That can be hard to depict in a movie striving for some degree of realism, so a ghost holding it worked.
My one quibble is: if the teenager is meant to be Macbeth’s son, the complete nonreaction from Lady Macbeth is weird. So maybe it isn’t his son, but in that case, it’s weird Macbeth is so affected by this one particular person’s death, because the boy is by no means the only young soldier to lose his life on the battlefield. There are a lot of ways to interpret Macbeth and his relationship with the boy, some of which work well, others less so. It depends on how you think about it. And I thought about it. A lot. I had lots of time to mull over all the things that are wrong with this movie. I had so much time because that’s what happens when you overuse scenery shots.
We get it. Scotland is fricking majestic. It’s a beautiful place we would all be lucky to visit some day. But, good lord, that is a lot of gratuitous scenery shots. Or maybe this is me being fed up with the cinematography in general. Slow mo battle scenes? Really? Those should always be used carefully and, in this case, they feel excessive and misplaced. The point is, between the landscape shots and long (but boring) battles, I had a lot of time to nitpick and think about things like: everyone in this movie is an idiot and none of them deserve the throne.
In another instance of weird rearrangements, Macbeth delivers his “Who can be wise, amazed temperate and furious…” speech to Malcolm. For those of you who need a refresher: Macbeth delivers this speech to a bunch of people after they jointly find Duncan’s body. He goes on and on how shocked and upset he is at Duncan’s murder. Then Lady Macbeth faints. I usually really like this part, because Macbeth goes overboard and is raising suspicions, so Lady Macbeth fake faints to distract everyone before her husband ruins everything with his bad acting. It’s kind of funny. Maybe different people interpret this scene differently. Kurzel certainly did.
In this Macbeth, Macbeth brutally murders Duncan, then stays in his tent. (Oh, yeah, Macbeth doesn’t initially live in a castle. He lives in a little “village” that has like 5 buildings, so Duncan has to sleep in a tent. They totally cut Lady Macbeth’s “The raven himself is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements…” line because she doesn’t actually have battlements). So Macbeth is chilling with the corpse, soaked in blood, when Malcolm, Duncan’s son, finds him. Then Macbeth gives his “I am distraught, blah blah blah” speech. Then Malcolm runs away.
Couple of things: If you find your dad brutally murdered, and some guy is sitting by his bed covered in his blood, you don’t run away to England, you raise an alarm or something. No one’s going to think you did it. You’re spotless, and Macbeth is looking like Carrie after the prom. It isn’t as obvious Macbeth is the killer in the original script, so that makes this Malcolm’s judgement more questionable, but I will accept “overcome by grief” as an excuse. But you, Macbeth. What the hell?! If you just assassinated the king, you don’t sit there covered in evidence. And you certainly don’t lie down in bed with him. You haul ass and get cleaned up.
I wish I could say that this is Macbeth’s worst blunder. There’s the awkward filming of the banquet scene, when he asks the murderers if Banquo is dead when literally everyone in the banquet hall can hear him. I always thought he stepped off to the side and asked the murderers, not sat down at a crowded table when it was dead silent in the hall and be like, “Yo, is the deed done?” Then there is the Lady Macduff fiasco. In the play, Lady Macduff, her children, and their entire castle are brutally murdered. In this version, Lady Macduff and her children are captured, then publicly burned at the stake. Sending a few murderers to a castle is one thing. Sure, everyone pretty much knows Macbeth is responsible, but there is a degree of deniability. It’s medieval Scotland- stuff happens. Can anyone prove he did it? Whereas in this movie, he ties Lady Macduff and her tiny, adorable children to giant stakes, then makes everyone stand around and watch as he lights the pyre himself. I’m sorry, is he surprised his people hate him and want to overthrow him?
Ah yes, the “battle” to dethrone Macbeth. I always thought it was a full out battle. Not Macbeth chopping down two dudes before coming face to face with Macduff. But I also thought Birnam Wood was brought to Dunsinane by the soldiers chopping off branches and carrying them so as to disguise their numbers. But no, they burned Birnam Wood, and the ash came to Dunsinane. And I would actually like that interpretation a lot, if I weren’t so irked by the fact that you could see Birnam Wood from Dunsinane. If the real Macbeth heard that and was relieved, I understand:
That’s fair to assume that wouldn’t happen in one’s lifetime. But I don’t know why Fassbender’s Macbeth was like “Whew, Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. That’ll be the day” when he could see Birnam Wood from his battlements.
Back to the battle: I will say, Fassbender and Sean Harris deliver in their fight to the death, or at least, for part of it. (Harris as Macduff is one of the only actors in the entire movie who emotes. I want to rewatch his performance because I enjoyed his bits. But then I would have to go back and watch the entire movie so…) It’s an incredibly physical performance by both actors, fantastically choreographed and extremely brutal. Then Macduff pulls his trump card (spoilers).
He is not of woman born. He was ripped from his mother’s womb! This is another characterization that I don’t agree with: at this point, Macbeth gives up. He’s done fighting. He doesn’t want to fight Macduff. In the original play, he has a moment where he refuses to fight Macduff, but Macduff calls him a coward, and then Macbeth fights twice as hard. He’s pissed off. He’s been tricked by the Weird Sisters, and he realizes this is probably the end, so he is going to go out fighting. The fight usually ends off stage, then Macduff comes back with Macbeth’s head. Fassbender’s Macbeth monologues, then dies in a very anticlimactic fashion. He keels over, and then Malcolm’s army marches past him. Because, although in the original play there is a siege to Dunsinane, in this version, the soldiers are apparently there to watch a grudge match.
I understand that there are different interpretations to characters. That’s why there are a million Shakespeare adaptations and will be a million more. But Macbeth’s undoing is his ambition. His hunger for power. He is a ferocious man who lives and dies by his sword. It’s how he came to be trusted by Duncan, it’s how he takes Duncan’s throne, and it’s how he loses the throne himself. The death brawl should be the biggest fight in Macbeth’s life. His drive and his fury should be overwhelming and desperate. But, like the rest of the movie, in this scene, Macbeth kind of just goes with the flow.
Then there is the ending. Oh the ending. The army has walked into the castle. Young Fleance (dead Banquo’s son) comes out of nowhere, looks at Macbeth’s dead body, takes his sword, and walks away, off into the red horizon as they cut between Malcolm looking at his new throne and crown. It’s probably foreshadowing that Banquo’s descendants will be king, so we’re supposed to infer that Fleance will grow up to take the throne by violent means, and so continue the bloody cycle. Which is an interesting ending to the story (especially since the play was originally performed for James I, who was supposedly descended from Banquo, so what an interesting adaptation for a play that was at parts sucking up to the author’s king), except, by that point, I had zero investment in any of the characters. I absolutely believe Malcolm will mess up and get overthrown – we established he’s not the sharpest tool in the shed when he didn’t immediately call Macbeth out for killing his dad. But who cares? The characters don’t. They’re just so calm about every horrible thing happening to them, have little to no emotional reaction, and no motivation, no burning drives, so whatever.
There are other things that bothered me. The fact that sometimes what the characters say doesn’t match what we see on screen. Like the director assumed the audience wouldn’t understand the Shakespearean language, so he decided to change actions that were being described, but not change the descriptions. (Or maybe the director didn’t understand Shakespearean language and didn’t realize he was doing this). There’s the weird, creepy child the Weird Sister have hanging around. And then inexplicably a baby, which I can only assume they stole from someone.
I just had no idea a movie about raw ambition, murder, insanity, and the supernatural could be so simultaneously boring and vexing. It has all the right ingredients: a fantastic cast, amazing costumes, beautiful scenery (even if there is a lot of it), a brilliant source script, and a director with a strong vision who is unafraid to make this interpretation his own. It’s just too bad that I did not understand or appreciate Kurzel’s vision at all.