Macbeth is one of those widely revered classic tragedies that has frankly been done to death since it first debuted in 1611. That’s 400 years of numerous treatments by the best in the theatre and film biz, ranging from cinematic adaptations by acclaimed directors Roman Polanski and Orson Welles to theatre productions headlined by legendary thespians like Laurence Olivier, Ian McKellen and Judi Dench.
So how can one distinguish their interpretation of a respected, well-used text from its earlier iterations? For Justin Kurzel – who is at the helm this time –, it’s the courage to read between the lines and draw out the more obscure aspects of Macbeth, thus adding new dimensions and contemporary relevance to a time-honoured, familiar tale.
For the benefit of those who didn’t study it for the ‘O’ Levels or simply haven’t gotten around to it yet (and you should!), Macbeth is one of William Shakespeare’s most famed tragedies. It’s about a respected Scottish general who receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that he will someday be crowned King of Scotland.
Spurred by his wife, Macbeth kills King Duncan to seize the throne and then commits more murders to cover up the first crime. Both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are driven to madness by guilt and paranoia, thus leading to their downfall.
If you’re a purist who believes that deviating from the text is sacrilegious, then be forewarned: This is not a line by line adaptation. The film opens not with the three prophetic Weird Sisters but a funeral for a young child, presumably that of Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Oscar winner Marion Cotillard) who are seen grieving over the small, limp body. Waittaminute, I never read about some kid in Macbeth, I hear you thinking out loud.
While there aren’t any tangible references to an actual child in the original text, scholars have argued that the Macbeths may in fact have had a baby that died during infancy, and this is strongly indicated in Lady Macbeth’s dialogue, which is filled with violent imageries of infanticide.
This is swiftly followed by an epic medieval battle sequence in which Macbeth and his army clash with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor’s clan on King Duncan’s orders. Amid the bloody chaos of throats getting sliced and limbs being severed, we get the sense that Macbeth suffers from battle fatigue. Fassbender himself has mentioned during press interviews that his Macbeth is a soldier afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder.
And there is a good reason Kurzel and team make such inferences and play up the more ambiguous aspects of the story. The pain and the trauma suffered by the Macbeths frame the motivation behind their dark ambition.
Unlike the (somewhat) caricatures of evil and greed from the original play, the film’s Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are damaged. They are open wounds, and set out to fill that void with political ambition and a bloodthirsty quest for absolute power. Personally, this makes sense, and also makes the characters more nuanced and believable.
Still, all that re-engineering won’t work if there isn’t a competent cast to bring these characters to life. And Macbeth is carried by a dream team of some of the most acclaimed actors today. Fassbender and Cotillard are electrifying – what lean, muscular performances!
They deliver the lines simply, almost conversationally, but with an expert control that is more elegant and powerful than the excessive gesticulations often associated with the theatre.
Also remarkable to watch is the arresting cinematography featuring the Scottish Highlands, and Kurzel’s distinct visual style. The sprawling landscape is harsh but beautiful, misty and mysterious with dashes of striking red, yellow and orange emanating from sunlight, bloody gashes, and a raging fire at the end which serves as the backdrop to the final faceoff between Macbeth and Macduff.
This is one of the boldest and most nuanced treatments of a Shakespearean text since Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), and I daresay the definitive cinematic adaptation of a Shakespeare play of this generation. Get thee to a cinema now!
It’s also interesting to note – Kurzel, Fassbender and Cotillard have reunited to work on a live action movie based on Ubisoft’s hit game Assassin’s Creed, and if Macbeth is any indication, we might just get the first ever truly great game to screen adaptation!
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is out in cinemas now – yay or nay? Sound off below!