Justin Kurzel and Michael Fassbender Redo Macbeth

Thoughts on Macbeth and Movies

MACBETH            (2015)
Directed by Justin Kurzel
The Weinstein Company, 113 minutes, R (violence and brief sexuality)
* * * *

When I turned 50, I gave myself permission to dislike a bunch of things that "sophisticated" people are supposed to like: Bach, opera, Baroque art, ballet, and Shakespeare. This shocks some of my dearest friends, especially the ones who think Shakespeare is the very embodiment of all that is good and fine in Western civilization. I  have issues with the Bard—starting with the fact that a lot of the same intellectuals that scoff at Biblical literalists treat Shakespeare's every word as if it is sacred. They don't care about the staging–you can dress the actors in mukluks if you wish–but don't touch the prose. I happen to think Shakespeare was wordier than a slum full of Dickens. Plus, I don't speak Elizabethan—nobody does these days, except on stage.

My other big issue is that Billy Shakes was a terrible historian! Fine—his job was to entertain, not to lecture, but because his words have been sanctified, a lot of utter rubbish has come to be perceived as a true record of the past. Take Richard III, for example. Who actually knows that he was a decent king who was quite handsome, not Shakespeare's mincing hunchback? Of all of Shakespeare's slanders, the worst was his take on Macbeth. I'll get back to this, but first let's consider a new film version that hews the Bard's propagandist storyline, but takes liberties with the production in ways guaranteed to perturb purists, scene-chewing thespians, and directors more ambitious than Justin Kurzel.

Kurzel's Macbeth is truncated in several ways. First, a normal stage production generally runs from 2.5-3 hours, but Kurzel's film is under two. He has cut dialogue–quite a lot, actually, as he uses the medium of film to full advantage: facial expressions, smoky special effects, scarred bodies, brooding silences, sweeping pan shots, etc. that convey information in images rather than words. The film unspools at a much faster pace, but the crosscutting between speech and image actually tells the story with greater clarity and accessibility.

Kurzel hasn't altered the content. King Duncan (David Thewlis) is near defeat by Northumbrian enemies before skilled general and Thane (baron) of Glamis Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) turns the tide and saves Duncan's throne. A grateful Duncan bestows an additional title upon Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor, but a witches' prophecy unsettles Macbeth. They tell him that he shall be king, but that his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) will sire the line of future kings. Driven by poisonous ambition and the vainglorious prodding of Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth turns monster in an attempt to alter fate. After dispatching Duncan and frightening the king's son Malcolm (Jack Reynor) to flight, Macbeth subsequently arranges for the murder of Banquo and his son Fleance (Lochlan Harris), though the latter escapes via magical deception. As they say, things fall apart from there. Macbeth descends into madness, Lady Macbeth kills herself, and the tragedy ends in Macbeth's demise via a sword wielded by his main accuser, Macduff, the Thane of Fife (Sean Harris).

Macbeth is among Shakespeare's bloodiest plays, and Kurzel graphically depicts this. Violence is literally etched upon Fassbender's body: oozing head wounds, a road-map of scars, blood running as thickly as sweat…. Battle scenes are gruesome and Duncan's murder is sanguinary and grisly. Some critics have panned Fassbender for his mumbling delivery and exaggerated physicality, but I saw this as a way of placing Macbeth inside the Hobbesian man-against-man savagery of 11th century Scotland. Okay, he's not Olivier, McKellen, or Welles, but in many ways, Fassbender's primal Macbeth is more historical than robed figures delivering eloquent soliloquies. My only quarrel with the film is its sloppy elision of time, which so compresses Macbeth's rise and fall as to make it seem instantaneous.   

So let's talk about history. Shakespeare gets a flat-out "F" for his version of Macbeth. The real MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh (Gaelic for "son of life") did not murder his king; Duncan died in battle against the Northumbrians in 1040. His fellow thanes chose Macbeth king over Duncan's son Malcolm, who fled Scotland. There was some opposition to Macbeth's kingship, but that was the norm for whoever wore the crown back then. He ruled from 1040 to 1057, and no contemporary accused him of regicide, corruption, tyranny, or misrule. He too died in battle against a Northumbrian army, one led by none other than Malcolm, an act easily viewed as traitorous, which probably explains why Macbeth's adopted son was his immediate successor, though he was feeble-minded. (Malcolm murdered him a year later and took the throne as Malcolm III.)

Why such tinkering with the historical record? It probably had less to do with Shakespeare's need to find the proper vehicle for his clever words than it did with the fact that his patron was King James VI of Scotland (James I of England), who was descended from Malcolm III. In other words, Shakespeare was sucking up to his patron. Today we'd use words like "embedded" and "toadyism" to describe his actions. So I don't mind at all when someone edits Shakespeare.* They're unlikely to butcher the Bard as badly as the Bard carved up history.

Rob Weir

*Adam McNaughtan's "Oor Hamlet" reduced a 4 ½  hour play to a three-minute song. Brilliant!  

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