‘The Scottish Play’
Director: Justin Kurzel / Script: Todd Louiso & others (from the text) / Editing: Chris Dickens / DoP: Adam Arkapaw / Music: Jed Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender / Marion Cotillard / Paddy Considine / David Thewlis
Much ado about murder…
Icame to this production having not seen, read or heard a take on ‘The Scottish Play’ since I read it at school, so there’s a lot of rusty memories to be scoured away first, if I stand a chance at ‘getting it’ this time around.
As a callow youth, my take on it (if I recall) went something like this: blah, blah, witches, dagger, murder, blah, blah, more murder, Lady M goes bonkers, blah, blah, finish.
What did I care about the Bard? Without inspirational guidance and interpretation from my over-worked & jaded teachers, Will fell from my orbit. Yes, there were the fleeting cinematic returns of Branagh’s fine Much Ado, or that great Richard III with Ian McKellen, but really nothing stuck for me until Branagh’s Hamlet. Now there’s a fine work I urge you to savour, if you can. I was privileged to catch it in a packed cinema in Edinburgh on its release and you could’ve heard a pin drop in the (packed) auditorium that night.
So we come to Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. For me, there’s much it has to live up to.
For those of you unfamiliar with the plot, here’s what the IMDB has to say about it: Macbeth, the Thane of Glamis, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his King and takes the throne for himself...
Now we’re back on the same page, I’ll start with the film’s easy wins: sets look period-correct (11th Century Scots) but it’s the great wardrobe design that’s a standout for me, with beautiful embroidery and authentically woven & dyed cloth. The film is steeped in its own time and place; no raids on the BBC’s prop cupboard here.
It’s telling that I choose to start with the aesthetics and not the text. Oh, the adaptation and selective filleting by Todd Louiso (and others) is effective enough. Key players – especially Fassbender in the lead role – go at it with a committed, almost pathological gusto. Here is a man beset by what we might today diagnose as PTSD. He suffers apparent mood swings, hallucinations and uses violent conduct to achieve his goals, rather than the more subtle arts expected of a leader and King. A Thane of that country & time, would’ve been – as we’re shown – a skilled warrior, afeared of few men. But he’s still a man for all that – a mortal – and as such, a person unable to shrug-off that which eats away at his soul; in this case, bearing witness to countless suffering inflicted at his hand. The death of an only child. To cap it all, he sees his King – Duncan – elevate his own son – Malcolm – into a higher position, thus putting Macbeth’s own succession further out of reach.
Fassbender throws himself into the role, with a giddy recklessness that says much about his rapport with Kurzel. The symbolic ‘baptism’ in a moorland bog and a horseback scene in which he wears little but a night-shirt in the teeth of a wintry Scottish gale, are just two highlights.
Support from such luminaries as Paddy Considine (Banquo), David Thewlis (Duncan) and more, is more than a match. Dialogue occasionally wanders, despite repeated viewing of key exchanges, that remain elusive to my cloth-ears. I suspect this had as much to do with the ‘live takes’ and little-to-no ADR dubbing in post-production and that’s okay; we’re seeing takes captured ‘in-the-moment’ and results are often startling. Characters – and the text – come to life before us and just as in life, even our heroes mumble.
For the first time, I got a real sense of the story’s depth and nuance. How Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) calls on ‘the spirits’ to make her husband King, almost as revenge against a world and God, that denied life to her sole child. Some men – and women, it seems – just want the world to burn. It was ever thus.
Together, this power-crazed couple scheme, plot and murder their way to power, only for that same drive to consume them both. It’s little wonder that Shakespeare’s triumph of story-telling has lasted as long as it has, for Man’s base nature never changes. Its themes are still relevant today, hence why each new generation rediscovers and reinterprets such works and makes them fresh.
Which brings me to the elephant in the room: Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth. I can see the thought-train that might have led Kurzel to cast her: it wasn’t unusual for inter-regional marriages to cement blood & dynastic ties between royal houses; it still happens. So, yes, having a French woman in the role isn’t as great a leap as you might think. But, in a production such as this, reliant on clarity and the live sound, there were too many scenes in which I struggled to follow her dialogue. No question that she acted with as much conviction as the boys around her, but her accent is a little too rich for the film, which is a pity as it detracts from efforts she makes elsewhere. It’s the film’s only mis-step of note, but it’s big enough to be a problem.
A brave second feature then, from Kurzel who followed this with another collaboration with Fassbender: an adaptation of the Assassin’s Creed video-game franchise; a ‘leap of faith’ that makes sense, if you’re following Fassbender’s apparent fetish for swords & chainmail…
Now does he feel his secret murders sticking on his hands.
Triple Word / Score: Vibrant / Bruising / Pulsating / Seven