Macbeth (2015) Dir. Justin Kurzel 1 hr 53 min
Written by: Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso, and Michael Lesslie
Based on William Shakespeare’s Macbeth
If you’ve ever wondered what a drama might feel like without any “light” or any comic moments, woven throughout, watch this unrelentingly dark, intense, and raw version of the familiar tragedy.
Be prepared for departures from the familiar, though, beginning with the opening scene. Ambition, greed, and even temptation take a backseat to “grief and violence” in this adaptation, with the image of a child or children repeatedly inserted throughout, in association with the witches, the battlefield, and the church.
As Emily Rome notes in her review on Hitfix, “Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths: It seemed to be perfect casting. Which is what makes this adaptation of William Shakespeare’s bloody tale of ambition spun out of control all the more disappointing.” I admit that I had great expectations, given the casting and some aspects of the promotional trailer.
Film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays often allow for more nuanced delivery of lines, focus on shifts in facial expressions through close-ups, and an element of creativity in lighting, angles, special effects, and scope of visual images. This adaptation tries something that would never work in a stage production by having the lead actors deliver their dialogue in a low monotone most of the time. Geoffrey Macnab describes this aspect of the film as “Fassbender and Cotillard mutter their soliloquies in remorseful fashion, as if by talking to themselves they hope to justify their own monstrous behaviour.”
Michael Fassbender, in the lead role, is, as usual, riveting in his performance with multiple looming close-ups of Macbeth. His commitment to the Scottish dialect, however, ebbs and flows. His Macbeth is obviously maddened through the course of the film. However, Macbeth’s problem seems less temptation to power and greed than possession by an evil spirit. Macbeth does not appear moved by much of anything that happens to him, which one critic refers to as “restrained intensity”, but I would add restrained to the point of losing viewers’ attention and empathy. Even the influence of Lady Macbeth is downplayed, excessively subtle compared to most productions of the play this film is based on.
Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth stands apart from the rest of the Scottish-dialect-attempting cast with an English dialect and a repeated visual association with a definitively Christian chapel. In some ways she’s presented almost as an anti-Marian figure visually. Maternal associations are also emphasized in relation to her, yet she comes across as cold and calculating, distant and removed. She never seems domineering or even taunting towards her husband, perhaps because the dialogue is delivered as though she is talking quietly to herself.
Part of the power of Shakespeare’s Macbeth comes from the title character’s psychological and spiritual struggle and open wavering between virtuous choices and self-serving ones. His better angel calls to him throughout the original play, yet he chooses to act on darker impulses. Audiences can relate to the temptation he faces, and they recognize that, at least until now, he has been a good man, a loyal subject to King Duncan, and one who has been recognized and rewarded for that loyalty. For the most part, the psychological and spiritual struggle of the character has been entirely cut from this version. It’s all darkness, mud, blood, and quiet intensity.
Given that low and often passionless delivery of lines, Macduff’s shouting at the discovery of the butchered King Duncan seems out of place. Multiple cut scenes keep the focus clearly on the Macbeths as the central figures of the film. Included in those cuts: Lady Macbeth’s interaction with servants after reading her husband’s letter, gaps in the discovery of Duncan’s corpse, the testing of Malcolm by Macduff, and the Porter scene.
The multiple long shots of mist-filled panoramas with human silhouettes are simply gorgeous. Combined with creative use of lighting and saturated color—usually red, these cinematic aspects of the film are stunningly beautiful. I cannot imagine what the candle costs must have been for this production, given that most of the many close-ups are lit by candlelight or fire of some kind.
At various points in the film, the action is moved to slow-motion, with a focus on the blood and mud of the battlefield. Costuming of the Scottish noblemen in the battle scenes reflects the influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) in which Japanese warlords compete for power and control.
As Manohla Dargis observes in her New York Times review of the film, “the results are visually striking, even if beautifying carnage in this manner is distracting and complicated, both for what it means for the drama unfolding on screen and for the audience”. The dramatic spectacle of the visual effects invites viewers in but the delivery of the dialogue distances them. It’s a confusing combination, leading audiences to focus more on the visual and less on the audio—the exact opposite of where Shakespeare’s original audience’s attention was directed.
My Macbeth film or taped stage production recommendations include any of these three: the 1979 Trevor Nunn-directed version featuring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, the 1999 Greg Doran-directed version featuring Antony Sher and Harriet Walter, or the 2010 Rupert Goold-directed version featuring Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood.