There is perhaps no Shakespearean play more intensely cinematic in its potential than Macbeth. Lean and mean, clocking in at about two hours and thirty minutes on the stage, the story of a noble warrior and his tragic descent into ruthless tyranny has deservedly inspired numerous film adaptations over the years. Despite the plethora of movie Macbeths however, it is my opinion that the films actually deserving of a viewing could probably be counted on one hand (if that). Now let us take a look at Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, the most recent addition to the motley and, at times, horrifying crew that is Shakespeare on the silver screen.
Macbeth (2015) begins well. The first scene is the burial of an infant, almost certainly the child of Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, and his wife. The death of a child is only hinted at in the original text, but I believe that bringing this earlier trauma to the forefront of the audience’s mind was one of the best creative decisions of the film. It is quite difficult to unearth the fountainhead of the Macbeths and, in particular, Lady Macbeth. Why is she driven to such monstrosity? Why does she pray for her milk to be turned to most bitter gall? The whole film pivots on the idea that ambition is the element with which the Macbeths fill their void of loss and sorrow. Many times we are reminded of their child: in the throne room, a high-angle shot is used to show the dejected Macbeth, and one cannot help but think of a son looking down from heaven. In the mad scene, Lady Macbeth stares intently at the camera as she frantically washes her hands; the camera pans, and we realise she is speaking to her dead child, whom she imagines as a toddler. Most chilling of all are the appearances of the witches, who hold the infant in their arms. Without a word, the image communicates that it is the want of a child that has led them on a path to evil.
If only the acting of the film were as well considered and insightfully rendered. The main problem with the cast’s delivery is that almost everyone has a chronic case of what I have decided to dub the “breathy mumbles”. As one would imagine, this detracts enormously from the viewing of the film. I think anyone who isn’t fairly familiar with Macbeth would find the dialogue hard to follow (I’m a Scot (ish) who adores Macbeth and even I could only catch a wisp of a line every now and again). The actors may really look the part, from Michael Fassbender as the rugged warrior king, to Marion Cotillard as his demented queen, to all four of the appropriately creepy witches, but this is hardly enough to make a compelling film experience. (Side note: why are there four of them? The witches, as well as everything else in Macbeth, come in a three, as this good fellow well knows.)
Perhaps that is the greatest problem with the film as a whole. Macbeth (2015) is spectacularly concerned with appearances and leaves just about everything else languishing on the wayside. In fact, the movie is so occupied with looking good, it actually ends up looking a little bit daft. The battle sequences that unfold in slow-motion are breathtaking at first sight, but because the digital VFX is so heavy-handed, the soldiers, instead of being in the western highlands, end up somewhere in the middle of the uncanny valley. Take a look at the image featured above and tell me that it doesn’t look like a television ad for a multiplayer video game.
Of course there is nothing wrong with a bold, stylised vision, especially for a story so entrenched in the supernatural like Macbeth. But it is common sense that any work must have highs and lows, light and shade – if you bombard your audience with striking image after striking image after striking image, splendour sinks to monotony and it becomes impossible to highlight the moments that are truly worthy of prominence. The ending of Macbeth, ordinarily, would have been a great triumph. The colour symbolism and heavy grading would have captured the spirit of the film’s bloody end; the silhouette of Macbeth on his knees, finally conquered, would have been chillingly tragic; the last appearance of the witches, the ultimate return of Fleance – everything would have come together so perfectly. However, the ending of Macbeth doesn’t have as great an emotional impact as it should, simply because of the overindulgent slew of scenes by which it is preceded. It doesn’t help either that we couldn’t ever hear a word anyone was saying.