starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis
screenplay by Todd Louiso & Jacob Kokoff and Michael Leslie
directed by Justin Kurzel
by Walter Chaw In a season awash in Terrence Malick shrines, Justin Kurzel's Macbeth has the temerity to evoke Andrei Tarkovsky instead. Maybe certain moments from Akira Kurosawa's Kagemusha, married to the saturated minimalism of Tarkovsky's Stalker. It's beautiful, in other words. Stunning enough that its self-consciousness is just another approach to centuries-old material, and a comfortable part of the whole. There are two approaches left to Shakespeare, I think: to acknowledge the centuries of intense scholarship around the canon that has uncovered the archetype (mostly Jungian, sometimes Freudian) mooring the tales, or to ignore them. This Macbeth understands that the Scottish Play is splashed red--all passion and portent and looming storms flashing low on the horizon. Every incident is portent. I mumbled along with the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech that I memorized for extra credit in eighth grade and marvelled at how Kurzel rolled it into a greater thematic conversation about the lust between these two people, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and his Lady (Marion Cotillard). It's as interesting an interpretation as Ethan Hawke's Melancholy Dane pondering choices in the aisles of Blockbuster Video. Muting the dialogue, swallowing it as Fassbender does here (or burying it, as in the various battleground sequences--Banquo (Paddy Considine) calls out his warning choking on blood and dirt), has the effect of placing the words of the story as secondary to its indelible images. It's Macbeth as mythology, seeking to explain how eternity metastasizes in the space between a couple who have lost a child.
Macbeth is very much like Andrea Arnold's brilliant Wuthering Heights, in that it at once reduces high literature to humours and rut while elevating it to essential, innate, animal drive. The film opens with a funeral for the Macbeths' child. In the text, Lady Macbeth says:
I have given suck, and know
How tender 'tis to love the babe that milks me
(Act 1 Scene 7)
In Act 4, MacDuff reveals that the Macbeths don't have children. Kurzel and his trio of screenwriters (Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, Todd Louiso) take a tactic seldom taken: that the Macbeths have had a child together and lost it. It's changed their relationship. When they plot their ascendancy and the murder it will take to get them there, Kurzel makes it foreplay. They are randy, and their couplings have about them a certain pall and desperation. They're grieving. Perhaps they hope to conceive again. It's another archetype to embed with the material's others. The three witches are joined by the shade of a child (a girl, not the Macbeth's lost boy), windswept on the watercolour landscape in a way very much more evocative of Emily Brontë's haunted moors than of Shakespeare's. To add a fourth weird sister to the mix says something about Macbeth: It suggests the cycle of women, literalizes it, and through this implies that the thing pushing these Macbeths is the desire for the completion that progeny brings. The play becomes a Frankenstein story in which an unnatural child--unfettered ambition--is unleashed as changeling to a "natural" child. The text becomes Romanticist in its nature, then--something about loss that gains a great deal of symbolic traction when its interpretation of
Macbeth shall never vanquished be until
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.
(Act 4 Scene 1)
is of fire and ash. Kurzel provides balance to the piece, too, when Fleance (Lochlan Harris), Banquo's son, who has escaped his father's fate (as in Orson Welles's version), returns at the end of the film to suggest not only the fulfilment of the prophecy that he will become king and continue Banquo's line, but also that the cycling from fire to fertility, like the cycling from whore to mother to crone to virgin, continues into infinity. The Macbeths have won their immortality and progeny through the endless repetition of their treachery and grasping opportunism.
This Macbeth is a simple interpretation powerful for that simplicity. The landscapes are large, saturated, populated by spectres and shades. The picture sees Shakespeare as an idea and it strips away all of the things that might distract from this. Many will find the mumbling obfuscation of the most well-known words in the English language to be a distraction; I find the clear elocution of the most well-known words in the English language to be more of a distraction. Freed from the English 101 requirements of the text (and there are great pleasures there, of course, unearthed in Kenneth Branagh's crystal-clear interpretations of the Bard), Macbeth is free to be a visceral experience rather than a visceral experience filtered through intellectual comprehension and the baggage that familiarity carries. It's more opera than stage--and more film than either. The play lends itself to carnal study; Welles did it, Polanski did it, now Kurzel has done it. It's low art presented as high art. Like all great works of criticism, it clarifies both interpretations and gives both value and equal consideration. Kurzel's film would be worth it just for the Birnam Wood sequence, and for what becomes clear this time around as Macbeth's suicide on Macduff's blade. It drowns in regret. It's meaningful to me that its closest analog in feeling is Lars Von Trier's Antichrist.