April 23rd is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and the literary world is, quite rightly, embracing the bard completely. As he’s already one of things we in the UK are most proud of, Shakespeare fever has reached critical levels and its difficult not to get swept along in the tide. The bookshop I have to pass on my way to work has a fantastic display showcasing the William’s own works and every book they stock that relates to him. It’s making me want to spend all my money and, as you may have read on Sunday, already has caused a few unplanned purchases. So I decided to take this further and spend the week running up to the big day celebrating all things Shakespeare. Starting by watching a film I’ve wanted to watch for ages. Well, there couldn’t possibly be a better time.
I think Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that I ever really studied. I was in Year 8 I think so about 12/13. Now I’m not saying it was in depth analysis but we studied the 3 witches scene in pretty good detail. I think it was a good decision because I was introduced to the Bard at a young age and with a scene that was pretty interesting and exciting. Had we started with Romeo and Juliet or King Lear then I definitely would have had negative connotations of his plays when I properly started studying his work. I’ll always remember reciting those lines in class and really loving the dark and weird situation. I enjoyed studying it and will always remember that feeling of wanting to study him. Now I’ve gone through university and my love of Shakespeare has grown.
I’ve also been shown that a lot of his plays are incredibly lame in comparison. After reading many of the dire comedies and romances I’ve come to really appreciate Macbeth even more. It’s not necessarily the best play but it does have a lot of stuff to enjoy. Macbeth isn’t the greatest dramatic character but his story provides a great deal of interesting stuff. We have witches, ghosts, murder and war. Who wants A Midsummer Night’s Dream when you have all that? A fucking idiot that’s what. So when I found out that Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were to play the husband and wife at the heart of the play I couldn’t wait to see it. Even if I was slightly worried on the accent front.
By this point most people are familiar with the story behind the play. It is the story of a man driven to extremes by his ambition for power and the need to hold on to that power. Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is the heroic warrior who, along with his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) meet with three strange women who tell them prophesies about their future. Macbeth is given the promise of the throne whilst Banquo is told he will be the father of kings. This brief meeting kick-starts a series of murderous events. When his wife (Marion Cotillard) hears of the prophesy she convinces Macbeth to kill King Duncan (David Thewlis) to inherit the crown. The guilt and shame of the act along with the paranoia about losing his title leads the couple down a dark path where more blood is shed.
Above all else, Macbeth is a visually stunning film. Shot in the highlands, Kurzel embraces the raw and muddy setting with help from cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. Director Justin Kurzel has brought a distinctive style to the Bard’s supernatural tragedy and the whole thing ends up feeling a little like a Scandi-drama set amongst the rolling hills of the highlands. It’s all very dark and brooding. In fact I don’t think I’ve seen such a serious adaptation of the play. The batttle sequences are beautifully shot and edited and, thanks to some delicately used slow motion, are incredibly dramatic. It’s a very big and cinematic adaptation of the play and will always be able to draw you in with its aesthetics.
In terms of the script, Macbeth offers a very simplified version of Shakespeare’s originals. There is a lot of editing that is bound to infuriate purists and scholars. Less emphasis is placed on the characters interacting than on the backdrop, which is not necessarily a bad thing in this case. Kurzel prefers to stay away from dialogue heavy scenes and instead focus on the characters at hand. Rather than complicate the narrative any more than it needs to be, there has been some attempt to find the human element of the play. It is an exploration of the characters of Lord and Lady Macbeth and the grief that is weighing them both down.
The film opens, against Shakespeare’s own vision, with the funeral of the pairs young child. It is this, Kurzel tries to drive home to us, that inspires much of the action that follows. What we see, he tries to tell us, is not two people blinded by the promise of power but a couple are trying to fill the huge void in their lives. Their eventual descent into despair and madness is given a more human layer than many adaptations that have gone before. Something that is only helped by the incredibly performances from the two leads. Fassbender is exquisite as the warrior Macbeth and, when he later succumbs to despair, offers a delicate and quiet performance of a man who is a shadow of former self. Although, this is, without question, Marion Cotillard’s film. She is both quiet and intense with makes her seem even more dangerous. Cotillard has the ability to offer an insane amount of drama with only a look that she brings something menacing but damaged to the role.
Macbeth is by no means the most faithful adaptation nor does it help reinvent the text in a dramatic way. However, it is worth a viewing thanks to the beautiful visuals alone. Not relying on the text as much as most adaptations would but preferring to present awe inspiring scenes that show just as much as the missing words could. Kurzel’s approach is hardly likely to create much new debate about the play but his attempt to humanise the pair at the forefront is a breath of fresh air. No longer are we witnessing the decent of two shameless and evil people. We can feel empathy for these characters. Despite the deplorable things they do.