The history of cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare is a long and varied one, containing films ranging from the stagy and faithful to the hip and loose.
Who can forget Orson Welles’ portrayal of the title character in Othello (1952), covered, as he seems to be, in boot polish? Or Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), proof that the use of a symbol instead of a word gives automatic access to a certain level of “cool”?
Some of these adaptations have been sublime - Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), Oliver Parker’s Othello (1995). Others ridiculous - Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet (1990), starring Mel Gibson. Or “groovy” - Tim Blake Nelson’s O (2001).
Most, like most cultural artefacts, have fallen somewhere in between.
Justin Kurzel’s new version of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender in the title role and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, belongs to the “in between” category, with its (at times infuriating) combination of cinematic splendour and dramatic incongruity.
Macbeth reunites Kurzel with Adam Arkapaw, one of the most exciting cinematographers around (Animal Kingdom (2010), Top of the Lake (2013), True Detective (2014)) and Kurzel’s brother, Jed, as composer, following their work together on one of the great Australian films in recent memory, Snowtown (2011).
Like Snowtown, this trio’s take on the Scottish play shows an undeniably cinematic sensitivity, a genuine understanding of manipulating action, vision and sound on a grand scale. In an age in which many filmmakers seem to learn the craft from iPhone apps and video games, this is high praise indeed.
The film contains many visually arresting moments. The large blocks of colour that dominate the background in some of the exterior sequences recall Nicolas Winding Refn’s hallucinogenic battle romp Valhalla Rising (2009).
Closer to its source material, the long, sweeping panoramas of Scottish scenery – wide shots in which human figures are dwarfed by mountains, swallowed up by sparse moors – recall Polanski’s (better) version of the play.
Probably the strongest element is Kurzel’s brilliant staging of action. The film is book-ended by two bloody and muddy fight sequences, figures ripping into each other silhouetted against backdrops of red and yellow light filtering through thick mist, exquisite slow motion images cut in against the fast battle pace. Fury Road’s George Miller could learn a lot from his compatriot about effectively using space, tempo and rhythm in action sequences.
The dour, grim tone established in these opening sequences is sustained throughout, as it was in Snowtown, but it eventually becomes tedious. The character and affect transitions and reversals, so essential to tragedy, are missing here.
This veil of blackness, furthermore – so appropriate in an Aussie film about homophobic serial killers – suffocates the joyful nuance and musicality that characterises Shakespeare’s language, regardless of content. The poetic quality of Shakespeare’s text, in even the bloodiest and most unforgiving plays (Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens), always offers an aesthetic contrast that enhances the play’s dramatic power.
In addition, Kurzel’s Macbeth is undermined by its “modern” approach to two key aspects of the play.
The first involves the decision to portray, from the outset, the title character as a kind of broken and bruised warrior.
Fassbender’s Macbeth is the clear product of the age of modern warfare, an embodiment of the psychological damage of warfare under conditions of modern armament. Kurzel is, understandably, in love with Fassbender’s face, and there are several shots lingering on Fassbender’s eyes which demonstrate this psychological damage. The whole film, in many ways, becomes reducible to a series of images of Fassbender’s grimacing, chiselled face.
His Macbeth, then, appears from the outset more like an Iraq veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than a glorious, triumphant hero, as in the play. The film seems to judge Macbeth’s warriorship by oddly contemporary standards of heroism, in which war is seen as a process of self-annihilation rather than hero-formation.
In Rage and Time (2006), German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes very effectively about this modern cultural tendency to insulate against wrathful, violent visions of heroism.
By contrast Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins with a happily and proudly violent warrior, the hero of his people. This is radically different from the insular and tormented character portrayed by Fassbender.
The decision to change and adapt the play is, of course, fine – 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), based on The Taming of the Shrew, is one of the best teen comedies of the 1990s – but it becomes dramatically incongruous when the same text and structure are used even though the protagonist is fundamentally different.
The second “modern” aspect that weakens the film is its apparent unwillingness to depict any of the pseudo-hysterical feminine “evil” that endows the play with so much energy (in terms of both Lady Macbeth and the witches). There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the filmmakers to depict Lady Macbeth in all of her delicious malevolence.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as many critics have noted over the years, could easily be re-titled Lady Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is a grand, magnetically bad character, Machiavellian in the extreme, and relentless in her pursuit of wealth and power.
In Kurzel’s version, whilst Lady Macbeth demonstrates some of these tendencies early on, she rapidly “softens” as the action unfolds.
About a third of the way through the film, she suddenly becomes a profoundly sympathetic character. We watch her cry as the wife and children of Macduff are executed, and note the look of regret in her eyes as Macbeth becomes increasingly mad. This negates the pleasure that comes from observing the murderous strength of Shakespeare’s greatest Medea. Despite a technically good performance from Cotillard, Lady Macbeth’s presence is noticeably reduced compared to other productions.
Shakespeare always finds the most pleasure in the wickedest characters, in the Iagos, Richards and Lady Macbeths, and Kurzel and the screenwriters’ decision to “humanise” and “psychologise” Lady Macbeth plays against the integrity and emotional traction of the film.
What would Othello be if Iago was just a tad anxious about his status? How could we delight in Richard’s garish behaviour in Richard III if it turned out he was depressed because he was abused by his father – that he lacked self-confidence – and that’s why he wanted the throne?
Literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton once remarked that the witches, as embodying a kind of pure, modern cynicism, were the real heroes of Macbeth.
Where are the witches in Kurzel’s film?
They appear a few times, briefly – some of Shakespeare’s greatest dialogue is redacted in the removal of the “Bubble, bubble” speech – and even then they appear as little more than shallow hallucinations, tokens signifying the disturbing machinations within Macbeth’s consciousness.
The witches have always been crowd favourites (as witches generally are), and their presence as arbiters, interpreters, and participants in the action of the narrative is sorely missed in Kurzel’s film.
Despite all of these reservations, the cinematic nous of the three key creative figures behind Macbeth, Kurzel, Kurzel and Arkapaw, makes it a thoroughly watchable, fairly engaging, film.
It ain’t Shakespeare – but then, what is?