(directed by Justin Kurzel, 2015)
When enthusing about Dorothy Dunnett’s superlative novel King Hereafter, or Kurosawa’s gripping Throne of Blood, I’d always felt a secret shame that I hadn’t actually ever seen the source material: the Scottish play itself. But now I can hold my head high thanks to Justin Kurzel’s new film, which sounded so promising that it persuaded me to go to the cinema for the first time since March 2014; and, with a couple of friends, I descended on Covent Garden Odeon for opening night.
Macbeth is Thane of Glamis: a Scottish nobleman and warlord, who has gained great renown as general of the armies of King Duncan: as the play opens, he and his fellow general Banquo have just crushed the forces of the rebellious Macdonwald. While surveying the carnage, the two men come across three mysterious women (Kurzel adds a silent, unnerving child and, later, a babe in arms), who give them a troubling greeting. They hail Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, ‘that shalt be king hereafter’ and acknowledge Banquo as the father of a future line of kings.
When the women vanish into the mists, the two men scarcely know what to make of it. Macbeth is Thane of Glamis, not Cawdor. How can such a prophecy be believed? But presently a messenger arrives from Duncan, bearing congratulations on the victory and gracing Macbeth with a new honour: the title of Thane of Cawdor. Slowly, almost frightened to accept it, he begins to understand that the prophecy is true; but still he wonders what must be done to bring about his final elevation to the crown.
In the meantime, since Duncan proposes to enjoy their hospitality at Inverness, Macbeth sends word of their imminent arrival – and the puzzling prophecy – to his wife. If he has qualms about how to act to seize power, Lady Macbeth has none: she is ambitious, proactive and ruthlessly persuasive. She sees only one solution: Duncan must die, so that Macbeth can take his place.
Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters… Bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue: look like the innocent flower
But be the serpent under ‘t. He that’s coming
Must be provided for; and you shall put
This night’s great business into my dispatch;
Which shall to all our nights and days to come
Give solely sovereign sway and masterdom.
Lady Macbeth, Act I, Scene 5
But this step, once achieved, leads only one way, and that to madness. As both husband and wife struggle with the consequences of their treason, and as Macbeth grows ever more determined to prevent the prophecy doing good to anyone but himself, a dark spectre of tyranny begins to spread its wings over Scotland. And far to the south, in England, Duncan’s exiled son Malcolm gathers soldiers, watches and bides his time.
Part of the reason I’ve never made more of an effort to see Macbeth is because I had the impression that it was little more than a ghoul show, full of witches and visions and ghosts. By the same token, part of the reason Kurzel’s film works so incredibly well is because he turns the supernatural elements into monsters of the mind. The play becomes a disturbing study of trauma and psychosis: an exploration of psychological disintegration which cuts out the bats and newts and leaves us with a splendidly austere morality tale whose spirit is echoed in the bleak landscapes that sweep across the screen.
My friend thought, in fact, that the scenery was too beautiful: she said that it felt more like an advert than a film. And it’s true that Scotland has rarely looked so precipitous, so gorgeously desolate, as it does here. But for me, the barren beauty had a purpose. The open vistas of moorland and mountain somehow emphasised Macbeth’s increasing psychological isolation and exposure. The splendour of nature only threw into relief the ugly pettiness of human ambition, and the sense of something greater and more eternal. In that context, the weird sisters feel less like storybook witches and more like pagan symbols of life and nature: they come and go with the mists, and the child with them grows older throughout the film, a discreet but unsettling sign of the passage of time. They are eerie in a much more satisfying way than the chanting hags I’ve seen in clips of other productions.
Every detail in the film looks gorgeous, not just the landscapes. Costumes are ancient and timeless, though we felt the general time period was probably meant to be eleventh or twelfth century. The weave of the homespun fabric is almost palpable through the screen, while there is little glamour about any of the characters: faces are lined and worn; the men are battle-scarred; the children preternaturally wide-eyed; the women, in some cases, luminously beautiful but also haunted. And the cast is full of the cream of British character actors, by which I mean those with subtle, understated acting skills and interesting faces (this is a long way from the kind of Working Title spot-the-celebrity-Brit casting).
David Thewlis made a gracious and quiet Duncan, a man too gentle for the times in which he found himself; while Paddy Considine was Banquo, shrewd enough to know that the prophecy can only spell danger for him, and wise enough to be troubled by Macbeth’s increasingly strained pretence of affection. I spent a considerable amount of time trying to figure out where I’d seen Macduff before: Sean Harris didn’t just look familiar, but I knew that light, raspy voice very well indeed; and it was only after working my way through the entire cast of Game of Thrones that I realised he was Michelotto in The Borgias. His Macduff was a wonderfully rich figure: stricken in turn by grief and bloody determination, but still subtly grieved by the necessity of killing his former friend turned enemy.
But the film belongs to Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Before going to the cinema I’d read that Kurzel viewed Macbeth’s mental disintegration as a symptom of post-traumatic stress. Having spent his adult life wading through blood on the battlefield and brutally carving up men at arm’s length, he is beginning to crack under the strain. Here the ghostly apparitions are visions of those Macbeth has killed and seen killed: the expression of his enormous guilt, not just for the murders he’s committed (or so I read it) but also the guilt he feels for having survived where so many of his friends and colleagues have been cut down.Fassbender, who looks different in everything I’ve seen him in, bulks up to play this battered, wearied warrior: blood-streaked and seared by the sun, lined and weathered, he convincingly looks like the kind of man who could come out of a battle alive. But he also conveys Macbeth’s softer side: the uncertainty and unwillingness to break his vows by murdering his king; the flashes of irony and humanity which gives you a sense of why he is such a good general; and, most of all, his love for his wife.
As the notorious Lady, Cotillard is no hard, icy virago, but simply a determined, strong woman who finds herself in a position to better her own state and that of her husband. She isn’t willing to accept that the crown is a futile ambition for a childless couple: who’s to say they might not have another child? She’s still young and the film subtly shows that their bond as a couple is based as much on sexual attraction as ambition. But Lady Macbeth, too, has her weakness. The film opens with them burying their infant child: a loss which clearly works on her as his treason works on her husband.
In a powerful scene, Kurzel shows her descent into madness – ‘To bed, to bed: there’s knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone’ – while she sits on the floor of her old home in Inverness, lost in visions of her dead child. This was the moment in which Cotillard impressed me most: her hair shrouded beneath an almost Biblical veil; her eyes fluid with tears which built up and then, achingly slowly, fell down her cheek. She looked like a weeping Venetian Madonna. And there is another powerful moment: the point where Macbeth condemns the family of Macduff to death, and Lady Macbeth realises to her horror that he has gone past the point where she can control him. Until that point, knowing his inner frailty, she has shielded him and guided him, taken on the weight of decisions and prompted him along the ‘right’ paths; but now his psychosis has taken him into places she can’t follow. And it seems to be that – the loss of the one she loves, at a moment when everything is teetering on the edge of ruin – that pushes her into her own decline. Both actors are magnificent: to see them together is sheer cinematic magic.
There are certain things which won’t appeal to everyone. Even I had a bit of trouble with the accents at the beginning: everyone speaks with a Scottish lilt, some more impenetrable than others, and it is not easy to follow. You get into it, but the troublesome accents and the innate complexity of the dialogue might prove a bit too much for some. And the film is also very slow, even though my friend explained that quite a lot of the dialogue had been cut (having flicked through the play this afternoon, I think this is a rare case in which the cuts make for a more powerful, affecting story). The pace has been picked for a reason, though: it builds up the tension incrementally, and allows the characters moments to ponder their situations; moments in which (thanks to the cinematography) you can almost hear the high-pitching wind shivering among the crags. But it won’t grip those who’ve come in search of battles and witches and shrieking madness.
Some people walked out of the film on Friday. I think they were mad to do so, but it proves that it isn’t for everyone. For me, though, it was an absolutely perfect way to encounter the play for the first time. In fact, ironically, it didn’t feel like ‘a film of a Shakespeare play’: it worked superbly in its own right and had a deep integrity which shows that you don’t have to update Shakespeare in order for it to feel original. Yes, it demands a measure of patience that not everyone nowadays can manage, but it rewards you with a nuanced, sophisticated and starkly beautiful reading of the play. It was a production well worth waiting for, and it deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting.