Where most cinematic Shakespeare adaptations are content to be anything but, doing the bare minimum to transpose and visually rend the scripts and leaving most supposed adaptational originality to ever-grating trendy “updates” in setting, Australian director Justin Kurzel here gorges himself upon the specifically cinematic opportunities making Macbeth into a film in 2015 presented. He tackles the temporality of the play’s story through the kinetics of film, cinema as sculpting in time.
The cliche about warriors in battle feeling time come to a standstill is literalised in the film’s opening sequence, and the film returns to that battle as a key disruptor in Macbeth’s psyche. It inserts the unspoken death of a second son into it, just as it inserted the death of a baby boy at the start as a progenitor of the titular couple’s griefstricken response to trauma, moments outside of the time of the play. This adds a revisionist modern take on the psychology of the play while keeping the setting period, deepening and expanding the play as it was written instead of tritely strapping it to some different setting in the pursuit of superficial novelty. This addition is used to create more of a coherent arc for Lady Macbeth, and to refocus Macbeth’s tyranny, literalising his not-being-in-his-right-mind. 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 film’s excisions (Fleance’s verbal takedown of his attackers, the witch’s iconic rhymes, the Porter’s scenes) feel even more justified than the usual slimming-down in non-Branagh-Hamlet adaptations when key story material is being added instead of just taken away.
The self-destruction of unchecked ambition, the ugliness in traditional gender roles, the divine tyranny of a monarch, all these are brought to life well as in most other adaptations of Macbeth (with the leading duo of Michael Fassabender and Marion Cotillard bruteforcing memorable takes on old themes through the sheer force and deranged magnetism of their performances), but it’s the film’s usage of the passage of time as a constant counterpoint to reflect that duo’s mental states and the rest of the play’s themes and events off that really works best. Those themes are reframed as cyclical ,literally so in the ending that daringly goes beyond the play to make a larger point about the cycle of violence. The decision to extend the ending beyond Malcolm’s first kingly address on the battlefield , 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 an interesting deployment of some of the film’s visual motifs (like three blue vertical strokes employed as both Macbeth’s warpaint and Lady Macbeth’s make-up when ascending to royalty, and discrete colour palettes being used to embody different tones and character headspaces throughout the film). Darkening the colour of the sky from orange to deep red as the violence mounts to a crescendo in the fifth act was inspired, furthering the point that Macbeth himself is not a unique figure, 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 live in peace.
The grand life soliloquy’s explicit focus on the passage of time becomes a crystallisation point for the film’s approach. It is odd how that soliloquy is filmed though – 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. Evidently the idea was to make Lady Macbeth’s “sleepwalking” soliloquy the jewel of the film, which worked in many ways, but visually downplaying Macbeth’s final soliloquy so much sits oddly in a film that revolves around its observations to an ever greater extent than most adaptations.
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 maneuvering 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 worked in a way splendidly specific to the medium, bringing clarity and purpose to the timebending kinetics of the film’s visuals.
A triumph. Four and a half daggers, and a splash of warpaint.