Shakespeare on film is nothing new, but this latest film is surprisingly only one of a handful of “the Scottish play” made to date. Filmed largely on location on the Isle of Skye, Justin Kurzel’s film certainly transports its audience in to a very realistic, rugged landscape of the 11th century – it is untouched, windswept, rainy and isolated, but its naturally beautiful panoramas suit this story perfectly.
The casting of the two leads is superb. Michael Fassbender is the ideal choice for Macbeth. Not only does he have the rugged looks of a medieval warrior, convincingly playing a man who can win seemingly impossible military battles and lead an army (albeit somewhat wearily), but he also carries an intensity which enables him to perfectly convey the gradual destruction of the character, as the consequences of his actions start to unravel, along with his grip on reality. His handling of Shakespeare’s words feels natural and his chemistry with his Lady Macbeth is incredibly strong, which is crucial in a story in which it is so vital.
Marion Cotillard is a tremendous Lady Macbeth. Initially a ruthless operator, spurring her husband on to carry out the murder of the King and, as he starts to lose his mind, her strength becomes ever more important at Court. However, I was impressed by how superbly she shifts the personality of Lady Macbeth (and indeed the audience’s sympathy for her). As Macbeth falls apart and commits ever more desperate acts to secure his position, it pushes her over the edge (enhanced here by the added scene in which Macbeth executes Macduff’s family himself in front of her, an act she clearly cannot bear to watch, but is powerless to stop). The subject of whether the Macbeths had had a child is unclear from the play and another interesting addition to this film is the choice to begin with the funeral of their baby. It adds an emotional depth to both of their actions, but particularly hers, culminating in the “out damn spot” moment, which I surprisingly found very moving. We see her return to their old home, now deserted, and rather than sleepwalk, she speaks aloud, part dream-like, to the vision of their deceased child. It makes her much more human and the scene incredibly powerful for its audience.
I did however think that the rest of the cast was rather average, outshone by the two leads, with parts such as Macduff (which often brings some of the most emotive moments to the stage) somewhat lacking. I also imagine that some people, especially if not familiar with the play itself, may find the combination of the words and the Scottish accent in which they are spoken hard to follow. It may be a rather short play and indeed it’s a relatively short film at 2 hours, but there are scenes in which there is a lot of talk, which does sometimes feel a bit dull. For me, there remains no better way to experience Shakespeare than via live performance.
The film is however a visually impressive, cinematic spectacle. Not only the landscape, but some of Kurzel’s directorial choices and interpretations of text from the trio of screenwriters are fresh and inventive. The early scenes evoke the horror and exhilaration of battle, with slow motion deaths (perhaps a bit too much slow mo for me though), with Macbeth moving through the chaos as if in a dream. It is, as expected, quite bloody but this never feels over the top (and in fact I’ve seen more violent battles on television now courtesy of Game of Thrones). Although the supernatural elements are played down (the “witches” here are simply women who remain a mystery and there is no bubbling cauldron), there remains an otherworldly mood in the air throughout, enhanced by the swirling mists and violent storms and Jed Kurzel’s score.
This version also includes a witness to Macbeth’s crime, in the form of Malcolm, who on realizing what has happened flees to England. I’m not sure this change was really necessary, but some of the textual interpretations are very clever. I am so used to Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane via the soldiers being camouflaged with branches, that it took me a moment to realise what had happened in this version and it makes for a striking backdrop for the final confrontation between Macduff and Macbeth.
Overall I enjoyed this film. Despite some weaknesses in the cast, the quality of the two leads gives it power and strength and some of the visuals, combined with the score will stay in my mind for quite a while. Despite, Fassbender’s involvement, I can’t imagine it’ll be a commercial hit, but I hope it perhaps draws some to Shakespeare who may not have been interested before and it’s fantastic to see film makers producing interesting, intelligent films, in contrast to the endless stream of Hollywood remakes and franchises.
Macbeth is on general release across the UK now (US release is set for 4th December). Watch the trailer to get a flavour of what to expect here.