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Rogues Guide to Shakes on Film 2

#21. Macbeth (2010)

As I established last time, I find Macbeth a difficult play to like. The story is one of stupendous coveting of power and how such an impulse, if acted upon, erodes the soul. There’s also a lot of semi-pointless wrestling with the idea of prophecy and Fate, and man’s relationship with the devil (or, okay, Hecate) and the tragically silly uses of free will if one wants to wrestle with such matters.

One of the hallmarks of most Shakespeare plays is that I care about all of the characters. In Macbeth, I tend to like none of them.

Still, a production needs to try to win me over, and the ways that must happen is through interpretation. Justin Kurzel’s recent film works in terms of psychologically psychedelic visions and lots of slow motion. (Alas, that film cuts the Porter out of the story. Damn!)

Rupert Goold’s version, for PBS’s Great Performances series, is probably the best Macbeth on film.

First of all, this one has the Porter!

Second, this one stars Patrick Stewart as Mackers himself.

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Third, Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth is stellar.

The setting has been changed to the nineteen teens, in the World War I era, so that the martial themes are transplanted into modern warfare. At first, this seems like a weakness, since the stock footage of WWI does not make the setting ominous. The weird sisters, attired as these old-fashioned nurses, seems more conceptual than effective at the start.

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All of that stodginess evaporates, however, when Macbeth arrives. Patrick Stewart is good, obviously, but he is revelatory in this film.

Presumably, Stewart was in such good form because he had performed this version of the play on the stage so many times, in what is now a legendary run from London’s West End to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to Broadway.

And Kate Fleetwood performed that run with him. Now Lady Mackers is a difficult part, if one can manage not to be hysterically melodramatic, and Fleetwood makes her so believable, and she manages to act perfectly with Stewart.

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Most of the other actors are also exquisite, such as Martin Turner as Banquo,

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Michael Feast as Macduff,

Macbeth 8and even Scott Handy

Macbeth 11as the self-involved twit—I mean—heir to the Scottish throne, Malcolm.

Tim Treolar plays a minor part, as Ross, yet his performance is the one that most humanizes this film, insofar as Ross seems to be the conscience of Scotland in this time of vast suffering and treachery.

Macbeth 10His empathetic performance is what helps me to care about all of the characters.

The approach of Rupert Goold to filming Macbeth is that of a horror film. As a tyrant, Macbeth is disturbingly intimidating, and his courage and bluster is malicious and personal to his ill-gotten subjects. He is, despite his panic at being outdone by Fate, a monster, but a very specific monster.

The weird sisters come to see really weird, too.

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Andrew Stirk’s choices about sound editing employ lots of eerie foleys that remind one of truly great horror films or the metaphysical dissonance of the darker David Lynch films.

This Macbeth isn’t quite as brutal as Julie Taymore’s Titus, but it is a deeply expressive iteration of tragedy, showing one of the finest Shakespearean actors of all time, and a cast that is perfect alongside him.

Macbeth 9Oh, and Christopher Patrick Nolan rocks as the Porter!



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.