Macbeth – sound, fury and tragedy

When it comes to Shakespeare, every generation must have their definitive adaptation of the classic core texts. Macbeth is perhaps Shakespeare’s most revered tragedy, a timeless parable about the corruptive influence of power, self delusion and evil incarnate. In today’s climate of wealth disparity, frequent acts of terrorism and the inflation of the personal ego via social media this is where a new adaptation of Macbeth must call home. 

The DNA of Macbeth is everywhere to see in popular culture. Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards are basically the modern equivalent of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, jostling in the halls of power, aiming to reach the top by any means necessary. In some aspects, a modern audience could view Macbeth’s display of violent medieval usurpation as relatively tame when compared to any given week on Game of Thrones.

In many ways, the latest version of Macbeth feels like a no-brainer. You have Michael Fassbender in the title role, and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. Both actors are renowned for playing edgy characters and villains with tragic dimensions. They simply aren’t the kind of actors who take ‘light comedic roles’ and there is nearly always an element of darkness in whatever performance they do. Together clad in black with Shakespeare’s words behind them, the Fassbender/Cotillard combo is a match made it heaven, or hell given the circumstances.

Then you have Australian director Justin Kurzel at the helm, who came to prominence with his 2011 film Snowtown. A grisly and all too candid account of Australia’s worst serial killings that in some ways makes an adaptation of Macbeth feel like Playdays.

Under Kurzel’s hand, this adaptation is a traditional but leaner version of the play. The main source of invention coming in between the lines – in the visuals and the setup. It moves along very briskly, inter cutting it’s regular beats with a larger story. The porter scene, the one moment of comic relief in the entire play, has been completely cut in favour for Macbeth’s rapid rise to power and fall into evil. The supernatural element, which has always been a classic touchstone of the play has also been reduced and instead refocused to represent the guilt and post traumatic stress of its two leads.

Even before we meet the witches on the moor, the film opens with Macbeth and his Lady solemnly gathered at the funeral of their child. It’s a simple funeral, a pagan styled burning of a pyre, but already the two leads – dressed in black – are in a state of grief. In the play, it is mentioned that the couple lost a child but in this adaptation it becomes a pivotal part of the plot, which informs much of the action and the character’s motivations ahead. Only after burying his child, must Macbeth go into battle, to fight for ‘good king Duncan’.

King Duncan is introduced within the plush luxurious confines of his tent, miles away from the battlefield. He despatches the traitorous Thane of Cawdor by shooting an arrow at him, preferring to keep his hands clean. Fassbender’s Macbeth meanwhile arrives on the battlefield dressed as a darker incarnation of Mel Gibson’s William Wallace and accompanied by only a handful of men, most of them boys. The battle sequence is bloody and shot mostly in slow motion. Macbeth loses men and boys and laments the loss of them. With this grief, black Macbeth appears more sympathetic than he ever has before. When he delivers the head of the enemy, you can see already that there is more than enough bad feeling and motive felt against the king. And your kind of with him!

I really like this picture.

Traditionally, Macbeth has always been a story set largely within the confines of castles and wild moors. Though there is one big castle in the Kurzel version amidst beautiful almost primordial shots of the Scottish landscape, we also see Macbeth preside over his small little settlement in the middle of nowhere. When he is elected Thane of Cawdor, nothing really changes he is still head of this little backwater settlement.

When it comes to the deed of murdering good King Duncan, Macbeth is at first reluctant as Shakespeare’s dialogue must be respected. The spectral dagger that leads Macbeth towards his destiny comes in the form of one of his younger comrades who died in battle. He may famously wish for the deed be done quickly, but when it comes to it, the deed itself is deliriously violent, with Macbeth stabbing King Duncan repeatedly in a frenzy. It’s less about taking the throne to appease his own greed, and more an act of enraged vengeance. There is slight disconnect, the dialogue says one thing but the setup and context of the characters says another.

By the end of Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of Macbeth, the title character swaggers around his citadel in his armour casually killing enemy soldiers, who put up no defence whatsoever. It felt as if Macbeth was being painted as this camp arch villain, his tyranny and wrath uncontested by any man born of woman. Kurzel’s version is different and essentially involves Macbeth fight MacDuff alone with no army, it’s as if they’ve all deserted him. Ultimately, the death of Macbeth feels less like disposing a tyrant and more like putting a mad dog to sleep. After that mad dog has lost everything. His honour, his soldiers, his best friend, his wife and his child.

A common criticism of the play is how Lady Macbeth is a pivotal character at the start but then fizzles out towards the end. Not so in this version. Cotillard’s “out damn spot!” speech maybe the greatest yet ever committed to film. Kurzel injects a poignant sting at the end, which completes the character more artfully.

For many schoolchildren, Fassbender’s Macbeth will become the definitive version of the play. For me, I’ve been used to seeing versions that revel in the supernatural imagery and an epic scale, but Kurzel’s version is a far more intimate and grounded adaptation than has gone before. Much is communicated in silence and hushed tones and an element of the sublime pervades the screen through the visually arresting setting of the Scottish highlands.

Most crucially, it is the first time in which the actions of Macbeth and his Lady become somewhat understandable. From Shylock to Malvolio, Shakespeare has always had a habit of making his villains appear sympathetic. They will at least have their one scene in which they explain their motivations and situations, that makes their subsequent downfall bittersweet. As the story wraps up, the audience’s perception of the ‘good guys’ as they laugh merrily together getting married to each others cousins changes, and leaves a bit of a sting.

Since Macbeth’s actions are so terrible and his ambition so strong, he rarely enters the realms of Shakespeare’s truly sympathetic character. By finding a motive, aside from one man’s misguided attraction towards prophecy, this version of Macbeth is far more relatable and all the more tragic because of it. This will always be this generation’s version of Macbeth, but it may just be the most definitive version of Shakespeare’s tale of sound and fury yet.

Related Viewing

Snowtown [2011]

I reviewed Justin Kurzel’s Snowtown back in 2011 and interviewed the director via email. It’s a deeply unsettling story of how one impressionable teenager becomes indoctrinated into a murderous gang.

Frank [2014]

He’s been in a lot of good movies but he’s best in Frank. A low-fi story about the curse of creativitiy. As it turns out Fassbender isn’t a bad singer either…

Macbeth [1971]

Following the murder of his wife Sharon Tate and unborn child by the Manson family, Roman Polanski dove head first into an X-rated version of Macbeth, channelling his grief into one of literature’s most infamous tragedies.

The Skateboard Kid [1993]

Because after these movies, you’ll need some levity. This is about a boy trying to come to grips with the loss of his father, by befriending a TALKING SKATEBOARD.

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