Think back to the waning days of 2014. What was your most anticipated film of 2015, looking to the year ahead? Most would have gone with Jurassic World, or Mad Max: Fury Road, or Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As for me personally, I’ve been waiting all damn year to see Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard star in an obscure foreign adaptation of “Macbeth”. This should say a lot about the kind of geek I am.
Longtime readers of my blog may have picked up on my love for Shakespeare’s work. In particular, “Midsummer” isn’t just my favorite of his comedies, it’s my favorite play of all time. But “Macbeth” is easily my choice for The Bard’s greatest tragedy. The plot is a relatively simple story of a man who murders his way to the top and eventually becomes his own undoing, but there are so many ambiguities to play with.
Are the witches sexy and seductive, or imposing and monstrous? Is Lady Macbeth driven by her own ambition or love for her husband? Does she have a dead child, and if so, how might that excuse her actions? And as for Macbeth himself, he could be driven forward by his own ambition, his degrading mental state, the very forces of destiny itself, or maybe it’s some innate thirst for violence inside him. Hell, it could be any combination of these and other factors. Macbeth could also be played as a soldier, a politician, or anywhere in between. That isn’t even getting started on the themes of greed, paranoia, guilt, insanity, corruption, and other such concepts so basic and universal that they could be applied to any setting or period. (And I do mean ANY setting or period.)
As with the best of Shakespeare’s plays, this story could be interpreted in so many ways to be taken in so many possible directions that the story renews itself with every telling. I’ve seen “Macbeth” performed dozens of times, and every single viewing still feels like the first time. So when I first heard that Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard — two actors at the pinnacle of their game — were set to film their own interpretations of Macbeth and Lady Mac, my immediate reaction was “Why the fuck am I not watching that right now?!”
And now, having seen the movie, I was very forcibly reminded of why I’m usually jaded past the point of hyping myself up for movies. That’s a solid year of anticipation I’m never getting back.
Macbeth (2015) was adapted by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso, all of whom more or less make their screenwriting debuts here. And that should have been a clue. Seriously, three writers? On a Shakespeare adaptation? How could it possibly take THREE WRITERS to adapt this script?! The words are already there on the page! They’ve been on the page for several hundred years, and the film presents them more or less intact! And I’m supposed to believe that this job needed three sets of hands and eyes? What the fuck?!
That aside, I’d say that director Justin Kurzel was a much bigger factor in how this film turned out the way it did. Based on the shaky-cam, the grungy makeup and costumes, and the shots that are drenched in shadows or silhouettes, it’s obvious that Kurzel was trying to stage a very dark and dirty interpretation of the story. Which is understandable. It’s entirely in the spirit of a tale in which pretty much every single character somehow gets their hands dirty, either figuratively or literally. Or both.
I could forgive a grungy and gritty tale of Macbeth. What I can’t forgive is a presentation that delivers grit in a way that sacrifices passion.
Presentations of Shakespeare (the ones that I’ve seen, anyway) all live and die on passion. Shakespeare’s tragedies are all about characters driven to ruin by their passion run unchecked, and his comedies are all about what heights the characters can be taken to by their passion. The best Shakespeare adaptations are the ones made by people who understand this, bringing energy and emotion to the text in such a way that it helps the audience understand and relate to a story that was written so many centuries ago. As opposed to the worst Shakespeare adaptations, which merely read the words on the page and hope the poetry speaks for itself.
Sadly, Kurzel proves himself to be the latter. When such accomplished actors as Fassbender, Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, and everyone else in the cast goes through pretty much the entire movie whispering their lines in a dull monotone, I have to assume that it’s some boneheaded call the director made. There are so many times when it seems like the characters are sleepwalking through their scenes, muttering out their lines at a snail’s pace. This will never do.
When Duncan is confronting the traitorous Thane of Cawdor, where’s the righteous anger? When Macbeth comes back from the battlefield and returns to the arms of his wife, where’s the joy? Macbeth slays the doormen who allegedly killed Duncan, then asks “Who can be wise, amazed, temperate and furious, Loyal and neutral, in a moment?” and he does it all with barely a shred of emotion. Seriously, when a (fully clothed) sex scene between Macbeth and Lady Mac is presented with all the warmth and eroticism of a snowplow, something is very wrong.
Then we have the witches. These unnatural forces of an unknown power, whose motivations and appearances could be literally anything the filmmaker desired, quite possibly the most iconic characters in the entire play… and they look dull as dogshit. Aside from a few weird ridges just above the nose, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish the witches from anyone else in this cast — they dress all in black like everyone else, and they’re just as ugly and unkempt as everyone else. What’s more, this movie doesn’t have just three witches — it inexplicably has four. Maybe five, depending on how you count.
Oh, and the “double, double, toil and trouble” scene? Removed entirely. I’m torn about this choice, since the chant is dated and entirely useless, even if it is one of the most iconic scenes in the entire story. In any case, the excision should serve as further evidence of how the filmmakers seemed allergic to anything that might be the least bit fantastic or interesting or engaging about this story. Needless to say, the Porter did not make the cut.
To be fair, there are a few times when the passion almost gets to where it needs to be. Two of Macduff’s big moments (alerting everyone to Duncan’s death, and learning about the murder of his family) are suitably heartbreaking. The “Out, damned spot!” monologue is staged entirely wrong, but at least Cotillard brings a few tears. It also helps that the monologue was presented in a single continuous take, and the filmmakers threw in a vision of Lady Mac’s dead son for a bit of extra kick. In fact, things do generally pick up a bit after Macbeth takes the throne, but not by much. To wit, that is easily the stiffest presentation of the banquet scene that I’ve ever sat through.
You might think that the action scenes would be more engaging, but no such luck. To start with, the shaky-cam abuse and the grungy overall aesthetic renders the fight scenes incoherent. We’ve also got the climactic fight between Macbeth and Macduff, in which the two of them are dueling in the middle of a forest fire. (Macduff set fire to Birnam Wood, you see, and the smoke was blowing toward Dunsinane, and that was how this presentation brought the woods to the castle. How a forest fire brought any kind of tactical advantage, I couldn’t tell you.) In theory, I get how a couple of silhouettes fighting against a fiery red background of smoke might sound awesome. In practice, it’s impossible to tell Macbeth’s silhouette from Macduff’s silhouette — even in extreme close-up — and the climax is thus completely incomprehensible.
It’s also interesting to note that throughout the film, Kurzel plays with editing and speed-ramping in unusual ways. Kurzel will often splice two shots together in such a way that they interrupt each other, as we go back and forth between a slo-mo shot and a sped-up shot. In theory, I can understand how this might be disorienting for the audience, conveying the horrors of war in a way that’s psychological rather than visceral. But in practice, it looks clumsy and it’s way too distracting.
Macbeth (2015) is a failure. I completely get the appeal in staging the play in a period setting, and a film adaptation loaded with shadows and dirt makes a lot of sense, but the approach is so badly mishandled that too many scenes are either ugly, boring, or confusing to look at. Also, even if the cast is loaded with such extraordinary actors as Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, and other talents who can effortlessly hold the screen, having them mumble their lines in a way that robs the story of its passion is simply unpardonable.
Though the filmmakers do bring a couple of interesting ideas to the table, I’m sorry to say that overall, this is the exact kind of stuffy, self-important, slowly-paced adaptation that gives Shakespeare a bad name. And given the inescapable ubiquity of Shakespeare, there’s no excuse to see this movie when you could go and support your local live theatre instead.