You could watch Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth without sound and still get lost in the film’s rich and hypnotic visuals… and it wouldn’t be that different from watching it with sound, where all of the Shakespearean dialogue is delivered in hoarse whispers that will frustrate anyone not already very familiar with The Scottish Play.
Anyone familiar with The Scottish Play may find themselves frustrated anyway; Shakespeare’s towering classic has been adapted down to two hours, which means the script by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso often feels like a greatest hits fast forward. Macbeth’s descent into madness isn’t so much a spiral but a trap door opening beneath his feet; characters walk in and deliver iconic lines and the scene immediately ends. The movie hits all the beats, but it doesn’t always allow the beats to breathe. Which is saying something, as many scholars think the version of Macbeth we know today is a truncated one, with scenes missing.
At any rate I suspect that drama isn’t the main concern for the adaptation of this drama. Kurzel’s Macbeth is first and foremost a tone piece, a film more interested in atmosphere and ambience than the nitty gritty of the story. You know the story, the film assumes, so here is a lot of really great imagery swirling around it. That tone is reinforced by the score, an often droning but always excellent work by Jed Kurzel. Visually, the film takes its cue from the three witches (four in this version): “Fair is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.” That line is like the mission statement for the movie, and every single aesthetic choice proceeds from it.
Kurzel’s Macbeth is looking to bring you into the buzzing center of Macbeth’s madness, but it doesn’t want to lower you into it - it pretty much starts there and escalates no further. From his first scene Michael Fassbender is sort of squirrely as Macbeth, looking through the fog and filthy air of the battlefield and seeing the traitorous Macdonwald replaced by the witches; even before the witches show up Macbeth is mad!
Which is frustrating. Like every single person who has ever done any serious reading, I love Macbeth; it may not be my drop dead favorite Shakespeare but it’s certainly one of the great works, and part of what makes it great is the storytelling. Shakespeare, for all his fancypants iambic pentameter, told cracking good stories, and the tale of Macbeth is one of the best. I love the way that Macbeth dissolves on stage, going from a heroic figure to a paranoid, murderous tyrant. My problem with Fassbender's depicition here is basically the Jack Nicholson in The Shining complaint - that motherfucker was unhinged from the start!
Fassbender gives great smoldering madness, but I wish he had been allowed (or opted for?) more dynamic range. He delivers most of his lines in intense whispers, and that intensity rarely wavers. When he does modulate himself he takes Macbeth in unexpected directions - his version of the ‘sound and fury’ speech is not one of crushing despair but rather an almost fanciful nihilism. He dances with Lady Macbeth’s corpse. That's interesting, and when coupled with the costume design - Macbeth swims in too-big robes that show he is unsuited for the job of king - it offers intriguing alternate directions for the performance.
Kurzel’s film makes unusual changes to the source. Lady Macbeth’s ‘damned spot’ speech is no longer a moment of sleepwalking, and the blood that she cannot get rid of is on a dagger, not her hands. Instead of a doctor she delivers the speech to the spectre of her dead child. Banquo’s ghost doesn’t take Macbeth’s place at the banquet but rather stands amidst the men. The visions presented by the witches are actually downplayed - no talking severed head, no line of kings in a magic mirror - as has the approach of Birnam Wood, which now comes to Dunsinane in the form of smoke and embers, not a shield of branches. Some of the changes are intriguing and very modern - Lady Macbeth attacks her husband's manhood while it is inside her, as the scene where she convinces Macbeth to slay Duncan is a sex scene - while others left me cold - the film changes the witches’ final prophecy and leaves Macbeth’s head on his shoulders at the end, a choice whose reasoning I cannot fully comprehend.
As a work of visual art I found Macbeth to be unparalleled; Kurzel creates tableaus that stun and that overpower the audience. The film has a texture that is unparalleled, and its atmosphere is so thick, so true, that you expect to see fog rolling down the theater aisle, that you test the floor to make sure you’re not on a boggy heath alongside Macbeth and friends. But as an adaptation of The Scottish Play Macbeth left me unmoved; I saw all the pieces I recognized but didn’t experience the power and impact that some of the best performances of the play have offered. Even with an extraordinary cast - Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, Paddy Considine bringing the supernatural glower as Banquo, David Thewlis as Duncan, Sean Harris literally killing it as Macduff - there’s a distance between Kurzel’s film and me. So much attention was paid to tone and detail and grit that it seems as if there was less time to nail the emotional center of the tale.
And so Macbeth ends up being a movie I appreciate deeply, and a film into which I was deeply immersed for the runtime, but also a movie that left me kind of cold. This Macbeth is a glorious collection of images and a triumph of production design, but it lacks the Bard’s humanity.