I’d heard this 2015 adaption of Macbeth was good, and expected as much from the cast, but I was absolutely stunned by how much I loved it. What thrills me about it is how it so utterly embraces being a film. This is no mere visual rendition of a stageplay as so many Shakespeare films are. The director, Australian Justin Kurzel, seems to understand that a Shakespeare film can never beat a live theatrical performance of the play and thus shouldn’t even try; instead embracing its cinematic nature and using every unique quality film has that theatre doesn’t to bring out the best of the story.
Yes, there are quite a few differences between the film and the play, but I don’t think any of them detract from the key themes and characters of the play. Sure, I missed Fleance’s verbal takedown of his attackers, or the witch’s iconic rhymes, but the film presents a more serious, focused interpretation of the story, and I don’t think scenes like the Porter’s are so vital to the story as to be a huge mistake in removing.
Most other adaptions of Macbeth I’ve seen focus on the themes of kingship and tyranny, masculinity and gender roles, and the poisonous nature of unchecked ambition. The film retains focus on the latter theme, but downplays the first two in favour of focusing more on the passage of time, the cyclical nature of violence, and mental instability brought about by trauma.
The focus on the passage of time is interesting for, while the play certainly has the ironies of the passage of the time as a motif at least (and the grand life soliloquy at the end explicitly focuses on it), I’ve never seen an interpretation focus so heavily on it. It makes perfect sense though – film allows you to play with time in so many ways theatre can’t. In battle, does Macbeth feel time come to a standstill, as is a common claim of many warriors? So much of the play focuses on the relationship between time and action that I think it’s a fascinating thought – and the film makes it literal, through frequent use of slow-motion in the battle sequences.
Might the crushing inevitability of Macduff’s success against Macbeth, blotting out all the tomorrows Macbeth might have faced if he’d either not murdered the king or at least handled his affairs better, seem infinitesimally small when Macbeth is actually facing him sword to sword, at home on the battlefield? The witch’s scheming and manoeuvring indicates endless time, their apparitions of succeeding generations emphasizing how small Macbeth’s life and actions really are, but is not violence, the raw physical contestations of power beyond two people the most human act one could engage in? In a way, Macbeth may have triumphed, if only for a fleeting moment (ironically) in actuality, in his last moments for he engaged in physical battle, not only his greatest skill and natural role in society, but a place where time can seem to crawl, and all else but the immediate conflict in front of you can cease to matter. The decision to focus on this idea was an excellent one, and justified the use of time-bending visuals beyond just being a fascinating effect.
One criticism I have is the bizarre downplaying of the play’s crowning soliloquy (“Life is a tale told by an idiot”). You don’t even see Fassabender’s face for the greatest lines of it, and the focus is on the staging of Macbeth moving Lady Macbeth’s body more than what he’s actually saying. While I gather the idea was to make Lady Macbeth’s “sleepwalking” soliloquy the jewel of the film, downplaying Macbeth’s final soliloquy so much seems unwise to me when the film makes the point of focusing on the passage of time so much. His soliloquy is explicitly about the passage of time! There are a few moments in the film like this, where there’s clear potential unseized, and it’s a shame because the film does so much right.
The visuals in the last act of the film, the battle between Macbeth and Malcolm and Macduff’s forces, were positively stunning. That orange/red hue, the lighting, the shadows, the framing…it was a visual feast. While there’s so much film can’t do, this was a clear example of what film can do in portraying Shakespeare’s work, that no other medium can; offer a jaw-droppingly beautiful visual representation of a scene critically important to, but barely elaborated upon, in the original text.
The cyclical nature of violence, “blood will have blood” and all that, is explicit in the play itself, but I’ve never seen an interpretation so heavily focus on it before. The decision to extend the ending beyond Malcolm’s first kingly address on the battlefield was thrilling to me. Suddenly swerving to Fleance’s point-of-view, flashing between the crown and sword as an expression of the discordance between right to rule and rebel claims, and peaceful rule and contestation through war, was a fascinating addition. Actually using the unique visuals of the battle sequence, the monochromatic hue, to highlight both the intoxicating pull of ambition (Macbeth’s hunger awakening from the witch’s prophecy, Fleance’s awakening from remembering Banquo’s assurance he’ll be a king), and how violence begets violence, blood will have blood, was perfect – the darkening of the colour of the sky from orange/red to a deep red clearly symbolising blood. Blood and fire, both symbolising the destruction of war, seem inevitable in Kurzel’s interpretation of the play. There will always be reasons for violence, whether borne purely of ambition or having at least some moral justification, and Kurzel’s vision makes the point that Macbeth himself is not a unique villain, but rather another in a long line of those who find reason to bring more blood and fire to a land whose common residents surely simply want to leave in peace.
The decision to portray Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (lead Michael Fassabender explicitly phrasing it as such) was an interesting one. Along with the alterations to Lady Macbeth’s story, it made for a more focused and coherent arc for her, and it also refocused Macbeth’s quick downfall into tyranny by implying he’s literally not in his right mind. I thought the decision to explicitly show the Macbeths had children that died made sense, having some support in the text (“I have given suck”), and allowing for a more initially sympathetic depiction of the couple, to make the descent into wickedness more impactful. So much of the story is focused on patrilineage that making the Macbeth’s lack of any heirs explicit served to reframe some of the dialogues with Banquo. Kurzel’s interpretation of the spectral dagger scene is another clever recontextualisation; here another symptom of Macbeth’s post-traumatic stress disorder and unyielding grief over his perished son. The focus on patrilineage and bloodlines really does work excellently with Kurzel’s decision to explicitly give the Macbeths a deceased heir.
The cast is excellent. Fassabender and Cotillard are fantastic, although Fassabender takes until the halfway point of the film where Macbeth’s descent accelerates to really find himself in the role, and Cotillard steals the film with the sleepwalking soliloquy, reappropriated here as a lucid confession to a deceased heir. I really can’t overstate how strong Cotillard is in that scene, and I applaud the intriguing decision by Kurzel to give Lady Macbeth more agency in her most iconic soliloquy. Sean Harris was the revelation for me; he’s stunningly good as Macduff, imbuing the character with the innate humility and self-assurance (Macduff’s refusal to singularly express his emotions at his family’s death purely through battle, but instead insisting upon an emotional reaction as well remains one of my favourite exchanges in the play) but also adding a sense of true moral outrage and weariness at the wickedness that transpires in the story. Jack Reynor is a tad aloof as Malcolm at times, and I think a more pointedly masculine and violent depiction would have made the exchange with Macduff and implication of the film’s ending make more sense. Paddy Considine makes for a charming Banquo, clearly devoted to his family, and David Thewlis embodies the fairness and calmness of King Duncan well. I appreciate that Kurzel kept Duncan in focus too, with Macbeth often having traumatic flashbacks to his murder of him.
I love visual touches like the parallels between Macbeth’s warpaint (three blue vertical strokes) and Lady Macbeth’s make-up when queened (a wraparound blue band on her face) signifying them both as warriors in their own way (a neat touch to the exploration of gender roles in the play, Lady Macbeth wishing to be “unsexed” so as to better express her personality constrained by the gender roles of the time).
This is a stunning film. Its greatest strength isn’t the gorgeous visuals, or fantastic performances, but in the coherency and thematic unity director Justin Kurzel ensures is enforced at every level of the film. Such sharp focus makes the few missteps (chief among them the bizarre downplaying of the incredible “Life is a tale told by an idiot” soliloquy) stick out all the more. Nevertheless, I think the film is an absolute triumph. It smartly reinterprets and recontextualises elements of the play, while keeping the broader points intact and even shedding light on some aspects largely left alone in other adaptions. Best of all, it utterly embraces being a film, and a great one at that.
I give it four and a half daggers, and a splash of warpaint.