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Non-Review Review: Macbeth

Justin Kurzel understands Macbeth.

A lot of Shakespeare’s work is viewed through the lens of cultural importance, and quite rightly. His plays codified a phenomenal amount of the English language in use today, incorporation and amalgamating words and phrases that people use without even thinking. Shakespeare codified drama and storytelling in the English language, to the point where any number of his plays can be cited as the defining example of particular styles of dramaturgy. There is no other figure who can cast such a shadow over English-language culture.

A Field in Scotland...

A Field in Scotland…

However, the tendency to treat Shakespeare’s works as priceless artefacts – an attitude engrained by the (rightful) reverence they receive and the way that they are taught in schools – is to miss the vitality and excitement of his work. Shakespeare might have endured as the defining wordsmith of the English-language, but before that he was just a really popular writer with an incredibly populist touch. His plays existed as spectacle before they became holy relics. The jokes played to the galleries packed with punters wanting both high and low culture.

As much as Macbeth might be a searing and insightful exploration of the relationship between violence and masculine identity, it was also pure unadulterated pulp. Justin Kurzel plays up this pulpy spectacle, crafting a version of Macbeth that anchors apocalyptic horror in two amazing central performances. Macbeth is a joyous and horrific piece of cinema, brutal and beautiful in a way that befits its source material.

Oh I just can't wait to be king...

Oh I just can’t wait to be king…

Macbeth is generally regarded as one of the four “essential” Shakespearean tragedies. It enjoys a rotation on the Irish Leaving Certificate curriculum along with King Lear, Hamlet and Othello. Its reputation is deserved, as Kerzel’s direction ably demonstrates. Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard devour the play’s central roles, offering powerhouse performances as perhaps the Bard’s second most iconic couple. Kerzel shrewdly relies on Fassbender and Cotillard to ground the play, offering a very human centre to the macabre machinations unfolding around them.

In a way, 2015 feels like the perfect moment for such a prestigious and high-profile cinematic adaptation of Macbeth. The early years of the twenty-first century have fixated upon the figure of the male anti-hero, an archetype that has come to dominate popular culture. HBO deserves a lot of the credit for this, with Tony Soprano serving as the archetypal masculine antihero, a tragic (and ultimately pathetic) figure of masculinity steeped in blood and tyranny yet perhaps “signifying nothing.”

"Heavy lies the..." Oops. Wrong play.

“Heavy lies the…”
Oops. Wrong play.

The Sopranos inspired an entire generation of angry and violent men, perhaps culminating in the central character of Walt White in Breaking Bad and the searing deconstructions of macho culture in True Detective. With the benefit of hindsight, one suspects that there is a lot of digital ink to be spilt about the crisis of contemporary masculinity in popular culture and the wider context of that anxiety and insecurity. While those themes run through Hamlet and Othello, the rage and impotence of Macbeth seems all the more appropriate.

This is the right time to revisit the Thane of Glamis, the man lost in the sense of entitlement to what was promised and spurred on by challenges to his masculinity. The fury of Macbeth has always seemed more primal and entitled than it did in Hamlet, serving as something of a mirror to the politics of power running through Othello. Kurzel plays up the rich veins of sexual politics and macho insecurities running through the source material, affording Michael Fassbender every opportunity to caress his male co-stars and carefully framing every discussion of manliness.

Don't cross her...

Don’t cross her…

However, Kurzel never allows his adaptation to drown in any weighty context. A lot of what distinguishes Macbeth from the other three great tragedies is the sheer horror of it all. In terms of major Shakespeare works, Macbeth is very much a pulpy horror. Although it might not go as far as Titus Andronicus, any properly staged adaptation of the Scottish play is going to want to properly paint the sets red. Kurzel understands this about the work, and frames Macbeth as an eerie and ethereal horror story.

This is not a new idea, of course. Perhaps the most famous cinematic adaptation of Macbeth remains the version directed by Roman Polanski, which played up the midnight grindhouse qualities of the play in question. Kurzel opts for a more stately type of dread. He frames his shots carefully and conspicuously, frequently cutting between almost static shots to create an uncanny effect. Negative space surrounds performers and extras who seem to almost stare out of the almost (but not quite) stationary handheld camera.

"I'm more like Macbuff, amirite?"

“I’m more like Macbuff, amirite?”

There is an eerie and awkward feel to Macbeth, with Kurzel frequently putting his camera at odd angles or allowing a beat for the audience to absorb a composition before the characters (or the camera) begin moving. As one might expect, the framing tends to emphasis the increasing isolation of its title character. There are a number of notable and memorable shots that capture Macbeth from directly overhead, as if positioning the audience as a figure of divine judgment.

When Kurzel begins to really move the camera after Macbeth assumes the throne, things feel decidedly uncomfortable. Kurzel tends to desaturate the green foliage and the blue markings of the film’s Scottish settings. This lends the movie a strange and desaturated feeling, with Kurzel bringing more and more gold and red into the frame as the film marches towards its inevitable conclusion. As Macbeth moves towards its denouement, it seems like an apocalyptic fire is burning through the film – hellfire consuming all in its wake.

Going for gold...

Going for gold…

Fiona Crombie’s production design is simply astounding. Acknowledging the horror undertones of the play, Macbeth is steeped in a weird historical union of Christian and pagan iconography, connecting with a long a rich history of British horror that suggests primal religious forces at work on the land and in the countryside. In particular, the set design of Lady Macbeth’s chapel is beautifully evocative, providing a nice intersection of Christian iconography with more traditional pagan imagery.

Macbeth looks and sounds amazing, effortlessly capturing the horrific beauty of its source material.

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8 Responses

  1. Macbeth was one of the first plays I ever saw on stage. I remember being terrified when Banquo shows up at Macbeth’s dinner.
    The film does look gorgeous from the stills you provided.
    What are your thoughts on Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet?

    • Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare adaptation. I love it to death.

      And Macbeth looks absolutely sumptuous. It is a beautiful film. If you are at all interested in the material, go see it – even if you know it back and front and to death.

      • I really like Derek Jacobi as Claudius. He brings so much depth to the role. I just wish robin Williams and especially jack lemon were not in it, as they are very distracting. It is still much than the Hamlet with Mel Gibson.

      • Jack Lemon is so jarring, because he’s really not cut out for the Bard’s dialogue. But you can’t imagine saying “no” to Jack Lemon. It’s particularly striking because he’s one of the first characters you see. (And you don’t forget him.) I didn’t mind Robin Williams, but for some weird reason I always remember him as the second gravedigger with Billy Crystal, in some bizarre twist on their Friends cameo around the same time.

        But I remember being really taken with Charlton Heston. I mean, that was the point at which I went “he really can act.”

  2. +1 for the Lion King lyric in the photo caption.

  3. Thank you for reviewing Fassbender!

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