Reinterpreting a work of Shakespeare’s is always going to be very, very difficult. Whether it’s on stage or in film, the various texts, quite simply, have such a cultural weight to them that anything you do – absolutely anything – is going to be debated and torn to pieces by critics and commentators. That’s a problem because, while debating changes, critics often ignore something very relevant when discussing the Bard: they forget to ask themselves if they enjoyed it or not. And that’s a problem because these plays weren’t made to be high-brow, enjoyed by only a few; they were made to be enjoyed by everyone. It’s as true today as it was in Shakespeare’s time; a brilliantly interpreted text can still suck, just as a text that sucks can be brilliantly interpreted. So, to put it simply, a good interpretation has to satisfy two criteria: 1. It should match the original tone of the work, and 2. It has to be good.
There have been numerous examples where this has been done in the theatre, but not enough in cinema – the three I remember liking most were Romeo + Juliet (1996), 10 Things I hate About You (1998), and Coriolanus (2011). The question, then, is whether Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is another one of those great adaptions or if it sits with Romeo Must Die (2000). I’m happy to say that Macbeth is outstanding. Not only is it a fantastic film, but it’s a great adaption of a time-honoured play, too.
And I think that’s because, while it is certainly faithful to the play’s tone (and dialogue), like the aforementioned examples, it finds a way to tell the story in a new way. Macbeth does this by setting the story in a thoroughly researched 11th-century Scotland, giving the whole thing an air of realism and credibility, and by concentrating on the theme of legacies – and in particular, the idea of ‘lost’ legacies.
Kurzel doesn’t have a massive biography, but the man can sure use a signifier, and here that signifier is dead children. The decision to use such a signifier to show Macbeth’s inner thought process and the cruel nature of the setting was an excellent one; it forces the audience to re-examine Macbeth’s mental state and wonder if his actions could in some way have been forgiven. At the same time, it doesn’t step on the source material. It reminds me of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke (1986), and The Joker’s declaration that anyone can be just as bad as he was given one bad day. Here, Macbeth is a man who has seen the abyss first hand through war and the death of his child and been turned wicked by it. He wasn’t defeated by one day, he was slowly ground down over a lifetime of war and death, and when given the opportunity to change the world and leave a legacy, he took it. It’s not a new idea to tell the story, but it is one that works very well in the cinematic medium.
This philosophy of representation, the idea of taking what has been established in Shakespeare’s canon and using realism to deconstruct it, permeates throughout Macbeth, most noticeably in the direction and cinematography of the battle scenes. Here, the philosophy serves as to emphasize the bloodiness and grittiness of war, as well as the wild nature of the setting, and as a result, we get some awe-inspiring cinematography. Great pain is made to emphasize the primal nature of the film’s battles; not just in terms of visual storytelling, but also in terms of sound, mostly notably on the film’s soundtrack, which makes use of tribal drumming, chanting, and lone, ethereal string instruments. Heavily stylized and expertly shot, the fight scenes in Macbeth are like nothing I’ve seen on film.
But a venerable and hugely celebrated story with an inspired directorial style isn’t much without a good cast, and Macbeth has a great one, even if they’re a little mismatched. The film’s leading man, Michael Fassbender, is a man on the edge of things, a man who we would recognise as going through the worst forms of PTSD. I feel that Fassbender’s Macbeth is humanized to an extent that very few interpretations have been in the past, and I think the film is better for it. It makes Macbeth’s fall all the more easier to understand, and as a result, we can emphasize with him more.
I was, however, left feeling a little unenthusiastic about Marion Cotillard’s performance. Maybe it’s because Francesca Annis’s interpretation of the character left such an impression, or maybe it’s because the focus here is more on Macbeth more than it is on her, but I felt Cotillard’s presence was rather lacklustre. She played the role admirably – her chemistry with Fassbender was wonderful to behold – and the way in which the film used her own insecurities and pain from the loss of her child against her in order to establish the reason for her madness was very interesting, but Cotillard herself was wasted here.
One actor who absolutely wasn’t wasted in this film, though, was Sean Harris. Quite simply, Harris delivers his lines as the furious MacDuff like a man on a righteous mission, and he steals every scene he’s in. Harris has been a staple in television and film for about five years now, and if you get nothing else from this film, you should be left with the impression that Harris should be getting more attention as an actor.
With that said, as a film, Macbeth isn’t for everyone – it’s certainly not a date movie! It’s very cynical and bleak, and there’s a lot of emphases placed on the grittiness of war and of the horrible nature of murder. And while the ending of Shakespeare’s play normally leaves one with the impression that a pretender has been removed from the throne, and that a true king will now take his rightful place, Macbeth (2015) leaves one with the impression that the circumstances that led to Macbeth’s ascension to the throne will only repeat themselves. It’s certainly contrary to Shakespeare’s intent, perhaps adding a level of modernity to the story that would put some purists off, and ultimately takes what could have been called a gritty story and turns it into a tragedy. Yet, at the same time, all these derivations from the source material only enhance the film. At least, that’s what I think.
Ultimately, Macbeth is an excellent retelling of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy. It’s not a straight adaption of the story, but it doesn’t take too many liberties, either. It’s not for everyone, but it will certainly make purists happy and I have no doubt that the casual viewer interested in Shakespeare’s work will enjoy the new take on the Scottish Play. Just don’t watch it on a date or expect a happy time.