Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film

20. Macbeth (2015)

Confession: I don’t like the play Macbeth, which I regard as the tragic story of a porter who is trying to do his job when Scotland decides to miserably implode, politically speaking.

MACBETH

[Aside] If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me,

Without my stir.

If only the imbecile went with that. Instead, he tries to outsmart the prophecies of the weird sisters, which (again) makes me not much like him. We are supposed, I suppose, to grasp hold of the importance that this opportunity does to Macbeth’s ambition, his greed for power, that did not seem to exist before it was awakened and then inflamed by his wife. Perhaps such dangerous temptation could happen to any of us, provided we are Scottish officers who encounter a trio of gothic weirdos after a miraculous performance in battle.

Basically, then, any performance of Mackers has to trick me into liking it.

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Justin Kurzel’s film starring Michael Fassbender as our title character, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, and David Thewlis as King Duncan, is a visionary go at the material. The setting is traditional, yet the ambient score, mesmeric violins and bagpipes and bass and who knows what other instrumentation, and the cinematography, using slow motion and flashbacks over soliloquies, makes the material feel gloriously vital.

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Part of the subtext of the play is that the Macbeths are childless, and implied in their plot against the king, in their coup, is an erotics of mourning, and the script by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso lean heavily into this, beginning with the funeral of their son. Lady Macbeth is driven by her anger at her loss. And the sexual relationship between the patricidal maniac and his wife is seen as a consequence of their sorrow, a compulsive attempt to ease one another’s pain.

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After the murder of Duncan, Fassbender climbs into bed next to the corpse. The jump cuts during intense scenes simulates well the tortured mental state of its characters.

Michael Fassbender delivers his lines with minimal affect, allowing his Macbeth to be a quiet warrior. Most of the acting is in a martial set to his jaw, and a hard look in his eyes, that is holding his rage and sanity barely within. The scenery, cinematography, and score mix so well with this minimalist approach to the role that its psychology is powerful–much more so than when actors try to ride every nuance of Macbeth’s hysterical attachment to his idea of his fate.

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Marion Cotillard is very much Fassbender’s equal as Lady M. Theirs is very much a love story, and while I may not adore the play, this is a much more successful treatment of this material than, say, Natural Born Killers. Cotillar’s Lady Macbeth shows courage to be her husband’s companion when he seems to be losing his mind and a threat to her.

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They might be both going mad, but not equally mad, or the same kind of mad, at the same time, and we see Lady Macbeth fear and mourn the loss of her husband even as she succumbs to her own overwhelming grief at the enormity of their crimes.

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The approach to the weird sisters is also sublimely done, strange, yet psychologically believable. The mental confusion that such a phenomenon would cause is well simulated by the film editing. (I won’t give more away on that score. In stage productions, one of the joys is the new ways one must find to simulate the sublimity of those three prophesiers.)

Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso managed to almost rush through the plot of Macbeth as quickly as can meaningfully be done, and makes us feel the drama with a wonderful amount of force. The premise of the play–a man contends with the perverse whims of fate–is rather uninteresting when dwelled upon and catalogued as extensively as Shakespeare’s full text does. The relationship of these characters to one another, on the other hand, is capable of moving me.

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Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is an unforgettable psychedelic meditation that indeed charms me into this bizarre tale of sound and fury, signifying, perhaps, nothing.

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John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University. He has reviewed performances for Shakespeare Bulletin.

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