Why It’s Important
Macbeth, Shakespeare’s brutal tragedy of betrayal and bloodshed, is the perhaps most enduring fictional depiction of unchecked ambition. It has been staged and reinterpreted countless times across all corners of the globe. Yet when it comes to cinema, the reigning adaptation remains Roman Polanski’s 1971 Playboy production. Until now. Australian director Justin Kurzel’s classical interpretation of the Scottish Play, flanked by the formidable Michael Fassbender and the exceptional Marion Cotillard, may well usurp Polanski yet.
Kurzel’s Macbeth premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. While the film wasn’t able to pick up the Palme d’Or, it nonetheless attracted positive word-of-mouth and a slew of enthusiastic reviews. Kate Muir at The Times awarded it a perfect five stars, describing it as a “lean, mean and powerful piece of cinema,” while Variety’s Guy Lodge praised Kurzel’s take as “thrillingly savage.”
Tonally, Macbeth has much in common with its director’s debut, Snowtown, a grim, unsettling recreation of Snowtown’s infamous bodies-in-barrels murders. Kurzel has described his take on Macbeth as a Western rather than a tragedy, but his description of its setting as “an environment that has borne tragic people because it's completely corrupted by violence” unmistakably recalls his portentous approach to Snowtown.
Screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Leslie and Todd Louiso’s interpretation of the classic tragedy retains Shakespeare’s core storyline. Set – and filmed – amidst the miasmic moors of Scotland, Macbeth follows its eponymous protagonist’s rise from successful military leader to tyrannical King. Impelled by the prophecies and hallucinations of three ‘weird sisters’ and his wife’s (Cotillard’s) ambition, Macbeth (Fassbender) assassinates King Duncan (David Thewlis) and claims his throne. Having achieved his dark ambitions, he is consumed by madness – a mind “full of scorpions” – dispatching enemies both real and perceived with a relentless bloodlust that presages his demise.
Watch Kurzel, Cotillard and Fassbender discuss Macbeth at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
What’s It Really About?
What distinguishes each Shakespearean adaptation is what it chooses to omit. Despite Macbeth’s brevity in comparison with Shakespeare’s other works, this film is savage in its excisions, both narratively and aesthetically. The screenplay culls comic relief, with the jesting porter never making an appearance, and deletes connective exposition; those unfamiliar with the specifics of the play may be confused by the particulars of the story, especially in its final act. What remains is a desolate, despairing portrait of a man alone.
The film’s most memorable image is Fassbender standing solitary in a shallow body of water in an empty expanse (and not just because of his impressive physique). Power corrupts, yes, but power also isolates. Again and again, Kurzel – with the aid of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw – frames Macbeth at the centre of an empty frame. Macbeth ascends from the battlefield to the stark opulence of the royal castle, but the camera assumes a cautious distance from its increasingly deranged protagonist. When Macbeth paces his dining room, shouting at a ghost only he can see, the shocked silence of his guests emphasises the existential loneliness that has engulfed him. After committing the unforgivable, he is fundamentally and forever alone.
Kurzel’s careful use of colour contributes to this distancing aesthetic. The film’s grey, near-monochromatic palette is disrupted by flashes of gold – the flutter of the candles illuminating Lady Macbeth’s church, the flames that immolate Macbeth’s victims, the dull shine of the precious metal itself – or the fevered red haze that consumes the film in its final war-torn minutes. Combined with Jed Kurzel’s unnerving score, this deliberate bleakness creates the sense of morbid inevitability inherent to classical tragedy.
Grief and Inheritance
Macbeth opens on a young child’s corpse laid to rest on a funeral pyre, the shaky handheld cinematography accentuating the emotionality of the scene. The child is revealed to be Macbeth’s; the last of his line. This is arguably a misinterpretation of Shakespeare’s intent; a dead child would explain Lady Macbeth’s allusions to breastfeeding, but appears to contradict her husband’s “barren sceptre” lament. However, its prominent inclusion suggests Kurzel’s approach to the material, one foregrounded in personal reflections on grief and legacy.
In an interview with Indiewire Kurzel explained, “a lot of [the film] is about family, and two characters who are desperately trying to replace family, and everything around them reminds them of what they don't have. I think that that is such an interesting and universal thing. I lost my father, and went into a process of grief with it that was all about how to replace that grief, how to fill it, and I think there was something very desperate in the way that I was replacing it. We all want to belong to something and we all want to feel as though we have a legacy, and when you see two characters that have had that taken away from them, I think that just feels very real and very human.”
The resonant feeling of loss that Kurzel speaks of drives Macbeth; his ambition (traditionally the primary motivation for his murderous actions) seems desperately empty, as though consumed by an elegiac numbness. He is mocked by his inability to sustain a family; tormented by the close bond between Banquo (Paddy Considine) and his son, Fleance (Lochlann Harris); and haunted by the ghost of the young soldier (Scot Greenan) he sees slain on the battlefield. Even the witches, figures of transgression and malevolence, are accompanied by infant children. Macbeth’s decision to murder MacDuff’s wife and children – in the film’s most wrenching scene – thus comes across as motivated more by inadequacy than paranoia.
When Fassbender delivers the iconic “tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy, clutching Lady Macbeth’s lifeless form in his arms, this overarching sense of grief clarifies Macbeth’s perspective on world bled of meaning, “signifying nothing”. Without his wife, without an heir, he is rendered an empty husk of a person.
These threads of loss and legacy culminate in the film’s final scenes, in which Fleance takes up Macbeth’s sword and runs into the red-hued future. This ending is at once pessimistic – suggesting the perpetuity of violence – and optimistic, with Fleance’s youthful innocence carrying the minute promise of change.
Femininity and Faith
From a contemporary perspective, Macbeth’s portrayal of women isn’t precisely positive. Lady Macbeth’s ambition is relentless. When her husband espouses doubts on the night of Duncan’s murder, she carefully coaches him to enact his betrayal. Even the modicum of humanity granted to Macbeth is denied her until she is taken by the clutches of death.
The other prominent women – the coven of witches – are even less nuanced, operating more as evil elemental force than three-dimensional characters. Their prophecies drive Macbeth to murder, madness and ultimately his own death, for no discernible gain on their part. The only wholly sympathetic female figure is Lady MacDuff, who is burned alive alongside her family for her husband’s perceived sins.
Kurzel’s adaptation takes steps to enrich these characterisations. The choice to linger on the murder of MacDuff’s family – and to include Lady Macbeth at the scene – simultaneously serves as an affecting reminder of the brutality of Macbeth’s reign while providing extra shading to Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness (which is otherwise quite abrupt). Rather than perform the “out, damned spot” monologue while sleepwalking, Cotillard delivers the speech in intensely emotional close-up. When Kurzel cuts to a wide shot, we see that she is within an abandoned church, before a pallid child – likely an apparition of her dead son (though this remains ambiguous). Thus her deep pain is tied both to the violence she has caused and the loss she has experienced.
The film also aligns its women with spirituality. The witches, of course, are unapologetic heretics, while Lady Macbeth, whose first and last lines are spoken in the same claustrophobic, stone church, is implicitly associated with Christianity. Lady MacDuff, too, recalls the martyrdom of Joan of Arc and countless women victimised for ‘profanity’ when she is burned at the stake. These subtle allusions go some way towards recalibrating the inherent misogyny of Shakespeare’s play, instead centring such character defects on the institutions and ideology that drive Macbeth’s corrupted ambition.
What to Watch Next
Orson Welles’ 1948 take on the Scottish Play was produced in circumstances more foul than fair; saddled with a comparatively tiny budget and insufficient shooting time, Welles’ film – starring himself in the lead role, of course – features excellent performances somewhat compromised by dodgy sets and costumes.
Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation, Throne of Blood, was more successful. Despite abandoning Shakespeare’s dialogue and migrating from Scotland to feudal Japan, Kurosawa largely held true to the core narrative while incorporating some chilling spiritual imagery from Japanese folklore.
Polanski’s 1971 movie, the director’s first after the murder of his wife, is undoubtedly the most personal interpretation of the material yet filmed. Like Kurzel’s film, it’s driven by grief; but while Kurzel’s grief is cold and distant, Polanski’s is hot and angry. In the 2015 film, the murder of MacDuff’s family is quietly devastating; in Polanksi’s film, it’s completely terrifying, with unmistakable parallels to the Manson murders.
That Polanski’s film has become the mainstay for high school English classrooms – with some vigilant fast-forwarding, naturally – is testament more so to the quality than the quantity of the films that followed. (Granted, there exists an excellent TV movie starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in the lead roles, but it’s more a filmed play than a film proper.) Most of these films are reinterpretations, taking a loose approach to their adaptation: for example, Scotland PA reframes the story as a dark comedy in a Scottish café, while Maqbool puts a Bollywood spin on the tale.
Australian director Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 film was one of many to reimagine Macbeth in a contemporary gangster setting. Like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, the film largely retained Shakespeare’s dialogue while featuring hyper-kinetic camerawork, flamboyant gunplay and an attractive young cast (including an oily-haired, pre-Avatar Sam Worthington in the lead role). But unlike Luhrmann’s film, it’s an overheated mess, defined by garbled line-readings, incoherent cinematography and an uncomfortably exploitative approach (case in point: the three witches are reimagined as naked schoolgirls, because of course they are).
If you’re not satisfied with this formidable back catalogue after seeing Kurzel’s film, a Globe on Screen theatrical production of the play, directed by Eve Best, will be screening in Australia from October 17 in participating cinemas.