Macbeth (2015)

Adaptation can be hard. For the people making the adaptation it means transposing something from one medium and fitting it into another, and with each medium something is either added or subtracted. Theatre, especially Shakespeare, has been a go to source for a number of film adaptations. Shakespeare’s, language, themes and stories have echoed down through English speaking culture and remain staples to this day. Despite his omnipresence whenever there is a new release based on a Shakespeare play it garners an awful lot of attention, even if, like in the case of the 2015 version of Macbeth, they are not very good.

I don’t think I need to do a plot summery, it is Macbeth after all; the play has been around for 400 years, if you have managed to avoid it then I think a slow clap is in order for you. But for the sake of those who don’t know, the film Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel and adapted by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie (three writers really?! I mean Shakespeare had the script basically there for you, what where you doing, the three of you?) follows Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), a Scottish warrior and Thane of Glamis. After defeating a rebel army he and his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) see three witches who prophesise that Macbeth would be Thane of Cordor and then King of Scotland, although Banquo’s heirs should be king. Messengers from the king then show up with the title of Thane of Cordor for Macbeth, seemingly confirming the witches’ prophesies. He then tells this news to his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) who “forces” him to kill the current king Duncan (David Thewlis) to get the crown. Thus begins the Macbeths’ slow descent into madness as they become more tyrannical and neurotic, torn apart by the guilt of their regicide..

The Battle and an excellent use of slow motion in Macbeth
The Battle and an excellent use of slow motion in Macbeth

Now I will get the good things about the film out of the way so I can make my point better. Yes filmically the film is stunning. The atmosphere created by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, coupled with production design by Fiona Crombie and score by Jed Kurzel is so thick it would be hard to cut with a sharp knife. The use of smoke and mist leaves the Scottish highlands looking and feeling oppressive with the atmosphere of a mystical mysterious place. The way the film brings Burnham wood to Dunsinane is particularly beautiful. It all fits the film’s fantastic tone and theme: it creates a sense of inevitability, a descent into hell and damnation

However I said in my introduction that the film was not very good. Here is why. Firstly I have said that I liked the cinematography, but I only liked it 50 % of the time. I am not a fan of documentary style camera work, it feels lazy and cheap. They use it here but the technique becomes accentuated by the beauty of the steady shots and slow motion. If you can shoot on a tripod and do shoot on a tripod for some of the time, then do so for all of the time otherwise the switching between the two is jarring. Secondly and perhaps more importantly, a film that markets itself as an adaptation of Macbeth the Shakespeare play should understand the play that it is adapting. As I have stated before, visually the film is stunning but the pacing, plotting and use of Shakespeare’s text is wrong. This may be attributed to bad direction or bad writing but there were several key scenes that were handled so poorly that it took me out of the film. The before mentioned Burnham Wood coming to Dunsinane, while pretty, figuratively and perhaps somewhat literally burned the source text. The witches felt out of place in a film with so much atmosphere, to just have three woman hanging around in the fog felt somehow comic. They are meant to be other worldly and strange and not of this earth, a description given by Macbeth using Shakespeare’s own language in the film. It is difficult to articulate this point in text, but put simply, if you are going to use a description of the witches that your main character speaks, then make the witches match that description, not just three woman farting around on the highlands. The same with the ghosts that appear; Banquo’s ghost is supposed to be gruesome and terrifying but looked just the same as when he was alive. Macbeth also sees one ghost of a boy who dies in battle but there is no previous set up and no reason given to the audience as to why the ghost is appearing to him. In essence the film as a film is a pretty mess, incoherent and beautiful, insulting and mysterious, but a film is more than just picture, sound and plot, Shakespeare after all is an actor’s dream.

A glowery Macbeth is congratulated by Duncan
A glowery Macbeth is congratulated by Duncan

A common complaint about bad Shakespeare falls on the head of the actors. And as much as it pains me to write, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as well as the rest of the cast cannot speak Shakespeare. Admittedly this is a hard skill to pull off and it requires training and experience to make the written word come to life but it is possible; Ian McKellen could probably sing it back-to-front and upside down. None of the cast have that skill, instead it becomes painfully obvious that they are reading Shakespeare but they, like the director and writers, do not understand the words.

Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth
Marion Cotillard as a drab Lady Macbeth

The worst culprit is Cotillard, as Lady Macbeth, who looks like she has no idea what she is doing half the time and the other half whispers her lines in the vain attempt to sound impassioned. Her version of the Lady-Macbeth-hand-washing soliloquy wass nothing short of insulting. She showed no range for the entire film. Cotillard is not the only culprit. Sean Harris as Macduff is nearly incomprehensible, either growing or roaring with nothing in between. I am personally unsure as to why this mush mouthed mumbler is still getting work, especially when dealing with the poetry of the Bard of Stratford. I could mention more cast members, but frankly they were forgettable. Finally we get to Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, perhaps the films biggest disappointment. His Macbeth is nothing but a sad lump, he looks on the verge of tears most of the time and growls his lines like the standard, “soldier who has seen things”. I say he is disappointing as he shows that he has some talent in Shakespearean acting, there are glimpses of range in his performance as Macbeth descends into madness, but those glimpses of character were clearly quashed by the director.

All in all a film I would not recommend, just look at the stills while listening to the sound track. Or if you must see it, view it as a show real for the cinematographer and the various artistic designers because it is a terrible Macbeth.

One Comment

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  1. Surprising take on the acting. I have not seen the film, but have heard all good things – particularly about Fassbender and Cotillard. Might give it a watch myself – if only, as you say, for the cinematography and the score.
    Keep the reviews and writings coming, and don’t hold back on the uncommon (but well-grounded) opinions.

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