‘Macbeth’, the play, is difficult to get right. It isn’t that it’s a bad story – the warning about ‘vaulting ambition’ is, of course, still relevant, the trickery of the witches feels cruel and modern in its existentialism, the endless cycle of suspicion, jealousy and murder. But the play is not flawless. In place of character development, the play favours soliloquys about the tasks to be done – Macbeth too quickly turns to murder where most of us would not. The best film versions of the play are distanced. Orson Welles’ adaptation is Brechtian in how obviously stagey it is, while Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is heightened beyond all recognition. Justin Kurzel’s new version strikes a balance between modern re-reading and overblown supernatural spectacle and doesn’t come off at all.
Michael Fassbender is a grieving Macbeth, who has just lost his only child (thus robbing the brutal, vengeful ambiguity of Macduff’s line “He has no children” in Act 4, Scene 3). He and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) then fall on the plan to assassinate King Duncan (a clueless David Thewlis) and set themselves up as king and queen, taking the idea from some deeply suspicious witches. Once crowned, however, the couple descend into bitterness and madness.
There isn’t much that really works with this new Macbeth. Fassbender plays the character mostly as a raving sociopath – the line ‘full of scorpions is my mind’ has never before sounded so sinister – but it doesn’t hold the film together, getting instead repetitive. We understand that the witches’ prophecy gives hope to a man who has lost an heir, but it isn’t convincing – especially when we see Macbeth putting Macduff’s family, including some youngsters, to the stake. Cotillard has one good scene, where she performs the ‘out damned spot’ soliloquy more as an act of sheer despair than of anything else. This works, but the film doesn’t have the material to make a believable transition from her earlier talk of smashing a baby off a wall (how this line works with a grieving parent is anyone’s guess) to this depression. Equally, Malcolm (Jack Reynor) and Macduff (Sean Harris) are left with little to do.
The battle scenes are admirably grotty and unheroic, but there is a feeling of dullness about them. They resemble too many other films (Braveheart, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones and on and on) and they are not peopled with enough characters that we care about. The orange-tinting of some sequences and the sudden slo-mo don’t help, giving more a feeling of stylistic desperation.
Finally, the film emphasises the play’s secondary subtext about violence begetting violence (a cheap theme that has been used to praise such tawdry films as The Last House on the Left) over the warning about ambition, but it doesn’t do much with it beyond suggesting that all this violence and murder is a bit extreme and offering a silly ending with Fleance. This new adaptation then offers little that we haven’t seen before and many of its chief innovations don’t really work. Fassbender and Cotillard do fine work, but it is hard to credit them, given that they are playing characters that fundamentally do not make sense. By the end of the film, the characters are exhausted and fed up and it is not hard to feel their pain.