I have often wondered whether Shakespeare would have made it as a scriptwriter in contemporary Hollywood. Could the master of theatre have as deftly wrought his magic with today’s moviegoers as he did with London’s Jacobean groundlings?
Yes, obviously. The story of Macbeth is testament to this. It’s a high-tempo action epic replete with magical beings, bloody battles, friendship, betrayal, and loss. I imagine the original production having the same impact in seventeenth-century London as a Stephen Spielberg blockbuster has today – blowing audiences away with its scope and majesty.
More the pity, then, that Shakespeare himself was not in the director’s chair for this latest adaptation of The Scottish Play. Not that the Bard himself would be turning in his grave at the efforts of Justin Kurzel and his screenwriting team. All the parts are there for this to be a truly masterful picture – yet it falls short all the same.
Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard imbue the leading roles with extraordinary subtlety and power. As the bloody king, Fassbender wears his witch-prophesised destiny – and eventual doom – with the grim endurance of a man long past believing in a just or joyful world. Cotillard’s Lady is equally relentless in steering her husband down the nightmare path to the crown.
Both play their parts as if their characters’ trajectories are outside their control. Macbeth’s flicker of conscience prior to the slaying of Duncan is the doubt of a moment, promptly smothered by his wife when she seduces him – obscenely – in a chapel. From there on their twin spiral towards disaster proceeds unchecked. Such an approach works because Kurzel prologues this greater tragedy with a personal tragedy seen suffered by the Macbeths before a single word is uttered onscreen. It would be spoiling the fun to reveal the nature of this personal tragedy here, but suffice to say it will prompt gasps of delight from Shakespeare afficiandos. The only downside is it renders both Macbeths curiously one-dimensional. Their hunger for revenge against a cruel world consumes them whole.
The machinations of the occult are kept to a bare minimum, focusing the action on the far darker corporeal world the Macbeths inhabit. The weird sisters (plus, ambiguously, Hecate) portrayed as scarred and solemn women of different ages, lend an eerie, rather than mystical, colour to proceedings. While their first prophesy is the catalyst which spurs Macbeth into action, they play out the rest of the film as observers rather than instigators, often literally watching the action unfold from the sidelines – an unsettling presence in corner of the king’s (and our) vision.
The dominance of Fassbender and Cotillard allows scant attention to be shared with the supporting cast, who are rendered dull and inert as a result. Malcolm in particular is underwritten, offering no counterpoint to Macbeth – or any reason why half of Scotland should side with him against the king. The strongest supporting character, in fact, is the Scottish landscape which, overlayed with a haunting soundtrack, provide a suitably bleak but beautiful backdrop to the action.
The focus on the dour Macbeths is as much a source of weakness for the film as strength. There is no release from their obsessions, no light relief interspersing the horror. The absence of the Porter’s scene following Duncan’s murder is particularly unforgiveable. If Shakespeare had been in the director’s chair, he would have recognised the value of such moments of jarring humour and kept them in. Kurzel, however, lacks the Bard’s touch for juxtaposition.
He also lacks a sense of tempo. As usual in a film adaptation, Shakespeare’s metre is subordinated to the demands of the celluloid medium. The pacing is therefore left in the hands of the editor and director, who favour long, lingering panoramas of the rough Scottish landscape and gratuitous slow motion action shots over the necessity of moving the story along. This becomes especially irksome at the film’s climax. In place of the breathless unravelling of Macbeth’s kingship I have come to expect and enjoy from stage versions, here we have a painfully extended, and painfully dull, exchange between Macduff and Macbeth ending in the king’s curiously downbeat death.
Kurzel has no trouble conjuring an atmosphere worthy of Shakespeare’s text. The cinematography, soundtrack, and much of the acting deserves credit. Yet in failing to grip its audience for the duration of the journey, the film falls short of its stage-bound precursor. A wonderful film, yes. A wonderful production of Shakespeare? Much less so.