Wednesday, December 16, 2015

MacBeth (2015)

However promising the idea of a new version of MacBeth starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard sounds, one can't help but feel disappointed with the result. Instead of a blood-pounding, grab-you-by-the-throat take on Shakespeare's classic tragedy, this new adaptation of the Scottish Play is muddled, both visually and from a narrative perspective.

The basic outline of the story remains. MacBeth is told by witches he will become king of Scotland, and at the urging of his wife, he murders King Duncan (David Thewlis) and usurps the throne, setting off a bloody chain of events that leads the new tyrant to madness and his downfall.

If you're looking for a faithful adaptation, look elsewhere. Much of Shakespeare's dialogue, especially for the supporting characters such as the true heir Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and even the witches (now made up of three women, a girl, and a baby for some reason), has been removed or otherwise re-arranged. It doesn't help that most of the actors deliver their lines with harsh, hushed whispering, making it all but incomprehensible. I've read the play and seen many versions of it, but I struggled to follow this one, and when I could follow along, I was annoyed by the seemingly random changes made by adaptors Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso. Under two hours in length, MacBeth feels choppy.

Visually, Scotland here is a desolate, cold place, shrouded eternally in fog, mist, and smoke and caked in mud, blood, and toil. Some sequences are absolutely spell-binding. When MacBeth returns to the Weird Sisters, their prophecy is delivered by the marching souls of fallen warriors, and when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, the advancing army does not use the trees as camouflage as in the text but burns the forest to the ground. As MacBeth's castle is doused in the ashes, he and MacDuff (Sean Harris) clash on a field covered in an orange-red glow that's almost Hell on Earth.

The climax hints at the film's larger problem. Watching MacBeth and MacDuff, I couldn't tell them apart; Fassbender and Harris are both buried beneath beards, dirt, and armor, and the camera is rarely steady enough to follow the action. As nice and as atmospheric some of the shots in the movie are, from the sweeping Scottish hills and the eerie coastline beneath Dunsinane, director Justin Kurzel uses a handheld camera during too many scenes, including normal conversation, and as the camera dips and bobs, it becomes distracting. During the action scenes, Kurzel uses a shaky camera buried in the sea of fighters, utilizing slow motion to focus on graphic wounds, and it becomes hard to follow except for the various closeups of stabbings and slashings.

Shakespeare's text hints MacBeth and Lady MacBeth may have had a child but never confirms its. The movie opens with their child's funeral pyre, MacBeth placing coins on his son's eyes. There's another teenager killed in the opening battle MacBeth seems close to, but the movie doesn't indicate if he is also a son. On one hand, it is interesting to speculate what MacBeth was like before the events of the story, but it takes away his tragic arc. Instead of a loyal but ambitious nobleman brought down by his flaws, MacBeth spends the entire film a brooding, monotone figure, much like everyone else except for Lady MacBeth, played well by Cotillard with equal parts feminine ruthlessness and ethereal despair.

The joy and poetry of Shakespeare are bled out by this MacBeth.


  1. My wife and I think this Macbeth suffers from PTSD. After the war, he sees people who aren't really there (the witches) who tell him to kill people. He sees ghosts. He becomes increasingly more haunted by what he has done.

    1. I can accept that. It would distinguish this MacBeth from other MacBeths, but the effect doesn't distinguish MacBeth from the other men in this adaptation.