This adaptation of Shakespeare’s play stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as Macbeth and his wife, as well as a solid supporting cast. That being said, I have very mixed feelings about this adaptation.
Visually, the film is very striking. Filmed on location in Skye, the wild and bleak Scottish scenery is a perfect fit for the drama. There is a commendable effort to make the costuming as true to the actual period when the historical Macbeth would have lived, so there is no sign of tartan, for example. (It is a common mistake to use tartan in Scottish period drama considerably earlier than it was actually used.) The soldiers wore padded tunics that were common for that era, with only the most wealthy being able to afford armour, and even many of the thanes would not have been that wealthy. The use of mist, lighting, all serve to make the film a beautiful one.
The direction (the director was Justin Kerzel) was, in my opinion, somewhat uneven. I liked the second half of the film much more than the first half, and the director’s choices were responsible for this. Inexplicably, he directed the cast to speak in very subdued voices for much of the first part. Their lines were delivered softly, and the emotion you might have expected was not often present. This was not the fault of the cast, as in the later part of the film this changed and they all showed they were more than capable of delivering their parts convincingly. I could not really understand what the director was aiming for with this. He also made certain choices in the way scenes were filmed that were artistic, but did not always work. There were scenes where parts of the film were sped up or slowed down at odd moments, apparently in order to illustrate characters’ state of mind. I think he would have been better off allowing the actors more freedom in their roles, as this method was less clear in its meaning than I think he imagined.
Some changes in the traditional way of depicting this story did not work, in my opinion. For example, when Macbeth orders the murder of Macduff’s family, the script indicates they are murdered in their home. However, the film shows the family trying to escape through the woods, hunted down by Macbeth’s men, then taken to his castle and burned at the stake. I found this perplexing. One of Macbeth’s characteristics is the doing of things in secret (the murder of Banquo is a good example of this). He is certainly becoming more brazen as the play progresses but I really can’t see him executing a woman and small children in public like that. It didn’t work for me at all. Another strange choice concerns the prophecy Macbeth is given, that:
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.
As the soldiers of Malcolm come through Birnam Wood, each soldier cuts a large branch to hide himself, so that as the army approaches it looks as if the wood is moving. However, in the film, Malcolm orders that Birnam Wood be set on fire. The wind blows the ashes of the wood over Dunsinane Castle, and so the wood ‘comes’ to Dunsinane in that fashion. While I give the director an A for creativity, I don’t really think it was necessary, or added to the film. I also think that using this as the way the prophecy is fulfilled is something of a stretch. I would not be surprised is some audience members would not have even understood that was the intent. It was too vague.
That being said, some aspects of the film were quite interesting and unique. As the film starts, there is a funeral. (This is not in the play so there are no words). The funeral is of a child, and it soon eventuates that this is the daughter of Macbeth. This means that the couple are starting the events of the play in a state of grief and vulnerability. Some of the scenes I have already complained about were, I believe, an attempt to illustrate the mental anguish of the characters. This might have worked if the delivery of the dialogue hadn’t been so devoid of life in the early parts of the film. There were two scenes involving the son of Banquo, Fleance, which I thought were interesting and I liked. One involves the murder of Banquo, where we see Fleance running through the woods trying to escape the killers of his father. He runs into one of the witches suddenly. A moment later, when the murderers come to that place, no one is there. The implication is that Fleance has been whisked away to safety with magic. The second scene comes at the very end of the film. The final duel between Macbeth and Macduff has happened and Macbeth is dead. Macduff and the rest of the soldiers leave the body of Macbeth on the ground. The air is still full of smoke from the burning of the wood and there is a red haze. From out of this, Fleance suddenly appears. He approaches Macbeth’s body, and picks up the sword that is lying on the ground. He then runs with it back into the red haze and eventually disappears. This is meant to indicate that Macbeth’s rule is done and Fleance will now carry the kingship into the future. I liked this, it was a good touch and a good way to end the film.
Macbeth is played by Michael Fassbender, an excellent actor who is a great choice for this role. He is at the right age to be convincing, and does a great job of someone who starts his murderous reign reluctantly, but finds things much easier as he goes on. Macbeth is actually a good example of the saying that the first murder is often the hardest. Fassbender struggles with the strangeness of the first part of the film, though does his best, and he really comes into his own in the second half. He is entirely cold-blooded while ordering the murder of Banquo and his son, convincingly crazed when he sees Banquo’s ghost at the feast, but reverts to the same cold-blooded calmness when contemplating the death of Lady Macduff and the children. Fassbender is fantastic during the soliloquy after his wife’s death, and when he realises that all the prophecies have come true and in Macduff he is facing his death, his fatalistic ‘come and get me then’ approach:
Lay on, Macduff,. And damned be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!”
is brilliantly depicted in Fassbender’s performance. He is a great Macbeth.
Marion Cotillard is Lady Macbeth, and while she is good in the role, she left me a little cold in her performance. (Her accent is irrelevant – it would not have been uncommon at the time for Scottish nobility to marry French nobility). Occasionally I found myself thinking yes, that’s it, but other parts of her performance were not so good. Her delivery of Lady Macbeth’s final soliloquy:
Out, damned spot!
was strangely lacklustre, a return to the subdued delivery of earlier in the film. And yet, earlier, when she tells Macbeth:
What’s done cannot be undone
which is an acceptance by the character that there is no going back, she is far more compelling. The film has her reacting to Macbeth’s murder of Lady Macduff and her children, something not in the script so without dialogue, but Cotillard’s depiction of horror and distress is fantastic. In the play, as Macbeth becomes more comfortable with murder and atrocity, Lady Macbeth becomes less so, whereas in the first murder it is she who is egging him on. Cotillard clearly depicts Lady Macbeth’s understanding that she has, in effect, created a monster, which adds to her overwhelming guilt and deteriorating mental state. So essentially when Cotillard is good in this she is fantastic, but she’s not always good.
If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, and familiar with the play, you may struggle with this film. Shakespeare’s language is archaic so familiarity with this older version of English is useful for full enjoyment, otherwise a viewer will often not understand what is being said. If you are a Shakespeare buff, however, my final verdict on this version of “Macbeth” is that it is adequate, its flaws precluding it from being the great film that it could have been.