This Latest Macbeth is Unfortunately Disappointing
by Kristin Battestella
Director Justin Kurzel (Snowtown) helms this 2015 adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth starring Michael Fassbender as the titular Thane of Glamis and Marion Cotillard as his grieving wife. Bleak child funeral pyres and a misty atmosphere match our witches' prophetic rhymes, and opening scrolls recount the Scottish war. Calm face painting rituals escalate to war cries, shouting rage, brutal swords, and battle chaos while slow motion torches and an intercut sense of stillness add to the trickery and kingly feasting. At times, these two hours move fast by showing the usually off screen killings – bringing the Bard's suspense alongside symbolic rain for the washing of blood, tense confrontations over fatal discoveries, and one suspicious coronation. Cathedral echoes mirror the growing power, but our soldier turned king spirals downward with his wife at his leash. Macbeth's contemporary grief and traumatic stress are best when the court intrigue brews, letting the play's innate zing overcome the pretentious, too arty for the sake of it voiceovers. There's a somewhat surprising lack of dialogue for, you know, Shakespeare, yet subtitles are a must to discern all the mumbling and grumpy who is who. The modern issues aren't a bad addition, but the contemporary stylishness becomes counter intuitive to the original drama and period setting. Though it holds fast to the well done historical locales and the ensemble is capable of doing clear spoken, straight Bard; this Macbeth never chooses what it really wants to be, ought to be better than it is, and doesn't seem Shakespearean enough. Had there been updated dialogue for the recent themes or a present setting with the original text as in Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus, Macbeth may have hit home the relevancy for Shakespeare today. Instead, what begins as a promising take becomes slow, tiring, subdued, and at arms length. This tale is not untouchable, but if you are going to deviate, run with it.
Certainly, Michael Fassbender (Shame) looks the battle field bearded, painted, gruff, and game on as Macbeth. There's no doubt of his warrior skill, but he's confused by the cryptic coming to pass. Why should Glamis stop at becoming Thane of Cowdor when the witches also said he would be king? Macbeth loves his wife and listens to her ambitions, however, their strain is apparent on top of his battlefield stress and conflicted flashbacks. He's caught between what's said about him and told to him, what he wants from his wife, his hidden cowardice, and a whipped position at home. Macbeth's supposed to be king yet he's repeatedly proving his manliness as he descends into madness. The dark picture and voiceover asides, however, make it feel like we don't see Fassbender embodying the turmoil enough. The language seems unnatural when his accent waivers, but Macbeth's lack of scenes actually talking to people adds to the isolation over what he has done – only the camera comes close as he messes up the kills and leaves his wife to handle the weapons. Although, I almost would rather not see the king's killing onscreen, just the traditional daylight discovery and a shady Macbeth washing. The suspicious snips of the deadly action as he is crowned are a nicer accent to his sullen deed is done and fair is foul change as Macbeth festers over the scorpions in his mind. He's losing control he never had, and Macbeth's a man meant for the battlefield as his leader commands or the bedroom when his wife says – but not worthy to be king. Is that his own weakness or the puppeteer wife behind him? Maybe a bit of both. The unmerited interplay is better than the arty interference, and the narration in the final battle scene feels unfair. Use those words for some crazy desperate trash talk! The lack of a beheading is disappointing, too, an unsatisfactory end when this Macbeth is all about his unraveling headspace. Fassbender was filming Macbeth amid the awards flurry for 12 Years a Slave and some personal tabloid fodder – preoccupations that also perhaps show. I like the uniqueness of Frank and Slow West, but without the refreshing take from First Class, I'm disinterested in the latest X-Men films. The Counselor fell flat; I have no desire to see Steve Jobs, The Light Between the Oceans, Assassin's Creed, or Song to Song, and after years of waiting for Trespass Against Us, I'm in no rush now. Instead, I find myself increasingly enjoying films Fassbender left or lost, such as Only Lovers Left Alive or The Force Awakens. He seems to be at a career crossroads – an indie darling franchised with Alien: Covenant but unknown to the mainstream with precious little box office success. It's ridiculous he's against today's new, superior scene chewing television platforms, and had the upcoming The Snowman been a serial caper, I might be more intrigued. While newer viewers may have found Fassbender over some sort of heartthrob status, I'm more and more aware that I miss his prime acting and dislike his recent, disappointing movie making choices.
Of course, a dead baby adds to Marion Cotillard's (La Vie en Rose) warped Lady Macbeth as she waits at home in the dark to hear tell the news of victory. This Mrs. is vicariously pleased with her husband but angry, wishing to be unsexed with her milk taken. She's unhappy at home and stronger in the scheming department than her man – Lady Macbeth has had to sit back from the glory, but now she has the chance to take matters into her own hands. She's cruel with nothing else to do but aide her husband's rise to the top as her own, and the grief of an heir lost contributes to her twistedness. The childless angle is implied in the text, and its a relatable connection today. However, I kind of rather like not knowing why she is so poison bent. I can't see Natalie Portman for Lady Macbeth as originally cast either, but Cotillard has no problem with the language barrier as our wife admits her deceptions. She says she's done her marital job, using her sex to trap her husband into violence. She wears white for the coronation, almost appearing in an angelic disguise, putting the crown on Macbeth and egging him on when he doubts. He reminds her how her barrenness ruins their monarchy progeny, but the intercut table top panting and killer planning is an unnecessary sexual visual. There's enough reading between the lines to know Lady Macbeth manipulates him by not putting out and refusing his touch. She is in charge, not seeing them have any sexual intimacy is a better indication of his emasculation. Yet for all her behind the scenes power, Lady Macbeth is a fallen figure, an unwelcomed mother with no child save her corrupt ruthlessness. She faces her guilt in a tearful church soliloquy where the camera rightfully remains on her mea culpa realizations.
Sadly, Macbeth's supporting cast feels wasted, and we hardly see usual bad boy Sean Harris (The Borgias) as good guy Macduff. He's enraged over the king's death, throwing up and shouting. He's battle ready and on his game for the finale yet never really built up as a proper rival. Likewise, I feel like I didn't even see Paddy Considine (Hot Fuzz) as Banquo until he died. His ghost is hardly present in favor of other anonymous dead boys on the battlefield apparitions, leaving the internalized Macbeth with no real friendly reflection or sounding board. Is it even really Banquo's ghost at the feast or just a figment of Macbeth's madness? Elizabeth Debicki (The Night Manager) as Lady Macduff is also just sort of there, and though his delivery is fine, David Thewlis' (Harry Potter) King Duncan is made lax, a distant, inept king who should be deposed to make us relate to Macbeth as his sad, victorious stand-in. David Hayman (Trial & Retribution) is made irrelevant as Lennox, and the unique witch potential added to this Macbeth never fully embraces its surrealism, which is surprising amid a visual display that could have gone for the ultra bizarre seen in Julie Taymor's Titus and The Tempest. Ultimately, it feels as though the ensemble is here because they have to be – a guy to kill, a friend to betray, another usurper to fight. If Macbeth could have been done with just the unhappy couple, this version would have done so. Actually, now that I think about it, that would have been a two-hander tour de force update I'd like to have seen!
Fortunately, authentic filming locations, Scottish castles, and gritty leather costuming invoke the historical atmosphere alongside slicing sharp sword sounds and blustery winds. Basic wooden structures are fittingly small against snowscapes, mountains, and rustic waters, and the women's costumes are likewise drab, minimally adorned robes with simple braided hair styling. The blue nighttime schemes are realistically grim but also incredibly picturesque, and a lot of time in Macbeth is spent outdoors with orange battlefield heat. However, the vintage candlelit interiors and firelight designs can be tough to see – viewer eyes must continually adjust to the flickering flames with each surprisingly traditional crosscut edit – and the artistic scene transitions are pretty but unnecessary. Again, the phantoms in the mist and witches mirages contrast the historically accurate approach, adding a whiff of fantastic whilst remaining reluctant to totally embrace the surreal. Instead, our Wood that moves becomes molten fallout ash – a shrewd and unique but too contemporary rather than theatrical twist. Macbeth plays at the mentality of its characters in a modern cerebral bend, but the impressive look and internal circumspect disconnect more than accent each other. Why not have Macbeth's traumatizing soliloquies become side by side Smeagol and Gollum split screens, faces in the fire, or watery reflections? Despite the beautiful design, I wonder what the dailies covering each actor looked like. Did the production not really like Shakespeare, so they felt the need to ramp it up by dropping most of the text for awe-inspiring visuals?
All my complaints, yet Macbeth didn't deserve a blink festival tour and miss it cinema release with no award hopes – like Coriolanus, The Weinstein Company distributor strikes again in squashing Shakespearean competition. Maybe it was asking too much to be blown away, but this is not the best introduction to Macbeth thanks to too much artistic unevenness for the purist and a lacking straightforwardness for classroom. Macbeth is one of my top three Billy favorites – competing with Othello and Julius Caesar for number one. However, I wasn't looking forward to this version after it sequestered the long gestating Enemy of Man production from Vincent Regan and Sean Bean. The 2010 Patrick Stewart version also better retained the source material with complimentary fascist parallels. If you are going to add back story changes and stylish designs with such a fine cast, be an intimate multi part serial taking its time with the ensemble in this unique world and its titular head space. The gritty realism for today's audiences is too try hard, a dry, modern psychosis jarring to the play speech and historic setting. Polarizing at best, Macbeth tries to have its cake and eat it too but halves the retelling's own changes, remaining mumbly timid while unnecessarily treating Shakespeare as too stuffy and in need of meta trauma.