Opening this week at a few screens around town (the Uptown, the Seven Gables, along with the Grand in Tacoma) is the latest high-profile adaptation of a Shakespeare play, with Michael Fassbender as the Scottish usurper and Marion Cotillard as his ambitious wife. Directed by Justin Kurzel, this Macbeth proves a solid entry in what must be considered the Games of Thronesification of the historical film, with an outsized emphasis on the lurid details of medieval warfare. The brooding sense of doom, of course, comes right out of Shakespeare, but where previous adaptations by Orson Welles and Akira Kurosawa found shadows and fog in the text, Kurzel finds blood. Whether that is an improvement or not I think depends a great deal on how important you feel verisimilitude is to realism. At its best, the film has some of the hallucinatory power that gives the play an eternal aura of mystery, like Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychotic Viking epic Valhalla Rising, but with words. At its worst, it’s simply Fassbender looking confused and mumbling incoherently.
Thankfully, Kurzel doesn’t appear to be trying to bring any new theories to Shakespeare, content to let the drama play out more or less as (and when) it was intended. We seem to have moved beyond the age when every new adaptation felt the need to update or modernize (Richard III as a Nazi! As You Like It in Meiji Japan!), a trend that was always less about bringing some new interesting reading of the work than it was a hook to try and trick audiences into paying attention, the dreaded urge to make a classic “relatable”, despite the fact that the only way a work of art can reach classic status is through proving relatable across time and space. The bloody violence of course is just a different cloak of relatability, but it does, somewhat haphazardly I think, inspire an angle on the play I’d never considered before. In underselling the brutality of Macbeth’s world, earlier plays overemphasize his venality, his ruthless bloody ambition, his wrestling with his conscience becomes the struggle of an evil man failing to adhere to social norms. But the simple fact is that Macbeth, regicide and murderer, was anything but a historical anomaly. In fact, what makes Macbeth the character interesting is the fact that he has a conscience at all.
Compare to Shakespeare’s other great monarchial killer, Richard III. Richard is a true anti-hero, he’s a bad guy, he knows he’s a bad guy and he loves it. We love watching him do evil things because he takes such delight in his own monstrosity. Macbeth though is tortured by his crimes. A man out of time, he’s plagued by a guilt none of his contemporaries would feel. The simple fact is that far from being unprecedented, Macbeth’s crimes are ubiquitous throughout human history; the innovation of the play is that Shakespeare transplants a modern psychology, a contemporary notion of morality and guilt onto a historical figure, and then imagines what would happen to that consciousness in a world of chaos. There are many ways to make a work of historical fiction. One can try to recreate the world as it was, understanding to our best approximation the way people thought and felt in the time period depicted. Shakespeare approximates that approach in something like Titus Andronicus with its brutally tribal series of escalatingly gruesome acts of revenge. Macbeth does the opposite: it takes an unremarkable historical figure and turns him into a person (or at least what Shakespeare ,and therefore what we, would recognize as a person). He makes the historical Macbeth, well, relatable.
Kunzel, in emphasizing the cruelty of Macbeth’s world, highlights this dichotomy in the work. Where in Kurosawa, the Macbeth figure’s betrayal of his lord is freighted with centuries of local ideology surrounding loyalty and honor (and the ways that ideology had been twisted by a military elite into justification for a disastrous world war), Kurzel’s seems out of step with his time not in that he’s a killer, but in that he has to be pushed to kill, and that, once he does, he can’t deal with it. There’s no particular reason to think that this Duncan (or Banquo, or Macduff, or Malcolm) is ethically superior to Macbeth. Rather than Macbeth the villain, Kurzel gives us Macbeth the hero in a villainous world, tormented by his inability to be better than his times. Fassbender begins breaking up almost from the beginning: his Macbeth is never in control, never confident, always performing. Toshiro Mifune brought fear and rage to the part, Fassbender brings bewilderment.
The film doesn’t have much for the women of the play. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth slips to the side, almost an afterthought in a part that is usually a show-stealer (Isuzu Yamada in Throne of Blood, for example), shocking considering Cotillard’s usually reliable brilliance. The Weird Sisters too are sidelined, appearing as ghostly images prophesying glory (doom) but not really driving the narrative. There’s never a sense that the witchs’ prophesy is leading Macbeth toward his doom, nor any really inkling of Lady Macbeth’s psychology or her relationship with her husband (in a Game of Thrones moment they do have an instance of inappropriate sex, but there’s no further implication that the couple get an erotic charge out of murder). All the actors really are almost as swallowed by the mise-en-scene as their haphazardly-accented whispers are by the sound design. But many of Kurzel’s images, though, are quite effective (less so the editing, which tends toward the mindlessly frenetic, especially in the opening battle sequence, which might just as well have been replaced by title cards spelling out CHAOS. . . BLOOD. . . WAR! in all-caps). Not as effective as Shakespeare’s words, of course, but the final image, a child running sword in hand through a red waste of fire and blood, is worth more than anything we’ve gotten from Kenneth Branagh in 20 years.