How many children had Lady Macbeth? This question, often incorrectly attributed to the early twentieth century Shakespearean scholar A.C. Bradley, has served as a warning to those who are tempted to treat Shakespeare’s characters as psychological case studies, with fully formed back stories and consistent motives. Nevertheless, the question also points us to a deep, abiding tension in our reception of Shakepeare: for more than four centuries, we have found versions of ourselves in Shakespeare’s plays precisely because his characters are so human in their flaws and follies. At the same time, the arc of these characters’ stories unfolds somewhere above and beyond us, in the realm of grand tragedy or grand comedy, or both.
For this reason (among others), any play by Shakespeare is exceedingly difficult to adapt for film. The cinematic space, as often as not, suggests both a time and a physical location that endures outside the frame of the camera, possibly contiguous with our everyday lives. The unique power of theatre is to present us with the opposite: a bounded location, in which we have one, unrepeatable opportunity to bear witness to a story. The most successful cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare create a world that is compelling but also complete unto itself, like a bubble in time. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood (1957), for instance, is a transposition of Macbeth to the medieval samurai court. Kurosawa sets aside Shakespeare’s script, but the bleak monochrome of the film and the physically stylised yet emotionally vivid performances – Toshiro Mifune as Washizu, the samurai Macbeth, is a vision of barrelling rage – capture the weird calamity of the tale.
Macbeth is the bloodiest and eeriest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, so steeped in ‘strange images of death’ that the play carries its own poisoned atmosphere: superstition holds that one must never speak the title aloud in a theatre, lest you curse the building and its occupants. Joining Kurosawa’s onscreen version, are, among others, film adaptations by Orson Welles (1948), Roman Polanski (1971), Trevor Nunn (1978), and Australian director Geoffrey Wright (Romper Stomper), whose 2006 adaptation took place amid gang wars in contemporary Melbourne. Despite the difficulties of filming Shakespeare, Macbeth must be a tempting choice for directors: it is short and action-packed. Unlike Hamlet, Macbeth does not dither about for nearly three acts trying to make up his mind. It is Macbeth’s haste to consummate his desires that brings him undone.
Australian director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, The Turning) opens his new film version with an answer to the vexed question of Lady Macbeth’s progeny. The opening scene gives us the Macbeths as grieving parents, swathed in black, presiding over the pyre of a small child. Kurzel cuts from close-up details (the child’s blue lips; the sea shells covering its eyes) to long shots of a funeral party almost swallowed up by the steep and forbidding Scottish highlands. These juxtapositions, emphasising the smallness of the characters’ human concerns, recur throughout the film. Kurzel also borrows from Kurosawa and the broader cinematic martial arts tradition in his use of stiff tableaux – arranging the cast in patterns that bring to mind the figures on a chessboard – and in his deployment of ultra-slow-motion during battle scenes, so that war becomes a precise and hypnotic dance.
Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is a warrior first and last. I’m still waiting to see a film in which Fassbender keeps his shirt on, and even here, amid the frigid crags, he’s given plenty of chances to go about half-naked. Still, that lithe confidence is part of what makes Fassbender a captivating performer, and what could have made him a brilliant Macbeth – but this isn’t quite it. Kurzel’s audacious mise-en-scène is not matched by his direction of his actors, who look wonderful in their rough-textured medieval garb, but who can sound less than convincing.
This is a Macbeth that retains Shakespeare’s language but makes free and easy with edits, rearrangements, and a few bold reinterpretations of key scenes. The problem lies not only with the actors’ technical ability to deliver the verse – a skill that varies wildly across the cast, along with the Scottish accents – but in just how much of the text has been cut, leaving the actors clinging to the driftwood of demolished roles. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) seems almost incidental: there is too little of the urgency with which her character persuades Macbeth to the murder that sets the tragedy in motion, and far too little of her later descent into madness. What a waste, to not use Cotillard’s emotional intelligence more fully! The diminishment of her character also impacts upon Fassbender’s performance: when Lady Macbeth dies, and Fassbender gives one of the most desolately beautiful speeches in the English language (‘She should have died hereafter; / There would have been a time for such a word’), we hardly know what Macbeth is mourning.
And yet, despite these shortcomings, this Macbeth is a memorable one. Kurzel’s use of children throughout the film, including some terribly young boy soldiers, goes to the heart of the play’s moral questions, which are concerned with kinship, inheritance, and the power of free will against the bonds of fate. Macbeth can be performed as a claustrophobic chamber piece or as a civil war; Kurzel tries both, and is most successful in the large, open battlefield scenes that convey the scale of Scotland’s tragedy, with Macbeth the ‘hellhound’ who grinds all beneath the heel of his ambition. As the nobleman Ross observes, late in the story, Scotland ‘cannot/Be called our mother, but our grave’. The film ends as it began, with a child, who vanishes inside a crimson mist.
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth opens today, 1 October, and we have two double passes to give away. To win, just email your name and address to [email protected] with the subject line ‘Macbeth giveaway’ by 5pm AEST Friday 2 October.