It feels somewhat of an event these days when we get a big screen adaptation of Shakespeare. A few years ago Joss Whedon, during his break from editing The Avengers, got his mates together and film a version of Much Ado About Nothing at his house. Shot in beautiful Black and White, the "Whedonverse" cast did a sterling job and, with copious amounts of booze, it was a Much Ado that actually made sense. Now, we have Michael Fassbender's take on the Scottish play.
MacBeth is one of those plays that can be seen so many ways. My introduction to it, like so many others, was in English class where we looked at the play in its historical context and Shakespeare's use of English to denote situation and emotion. I found it fascinating and came away with of a love of Shakespeare, but not one of Macbeth. I found the play problematic and the motives of MacBeth and his wife, frankly cloudy. In film though, I've always felt it comes alive. Welles and Polanski's versions are fantastic but pale to, in my mind, the greatest screen MacBeth, Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. The Japanese Master took MacBeth from Scotland and immersed it in the Japanese Noh tradition and let Toshiro Mifune lose on it. But it is Isuzu Yamada at the Lady MacBeth character that steals the film, she is incredible and, in my mind, the finest screen Lady MacBeth. The final battle of Throne of Blood, is cinematic gold and as the arrows thud into the walls by Mifune's head, culminating in the terror of those real arrows landing a tad closer than he was told they would! So, how does Justin Kurzel's film measure up? Rather well actually.
MacBeth is set in its original 11th century and carries with it all the mud and blood you would expect. Opening with the MacBeth's burial of their child and MacBeth leading more children into battle, we have the seed of the reasoning for their actions. Grief and Post Traumatic Stress turn these loyal subjects of King Duncan into his usurpers. There isn't, I feel, too much need to discuss the tale, but there are a few alterations that deserve a moment. The mystical moments are toned down and this is a help. We have the witches now as mysterious women from the mist and this helps ground the film in the realism it is striving for. Also, there are a couple added scenes showing the murder of MacDuff's wife and children. These go to add a little depth to the tale, but Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are captivating throughout. Both seem to inhabit the grief that they use to drive their characters to greater and greater depths. Fassbender's grizzled MacBeth, a survivor of too many battles with nothing left to live for and Cotillard's Lady MacBeth, as a mother of a dead child, see the throne as the only thing that could possibly replace her loss. Both Fassbender and Cotillard tower majestically over the grime they create and are mesmerising on screen. Their rise and collapse is wonderful to watch and their delivery is impeccable. One concern is that very delivery is a tad mumbled here and there, Sean Harris as usual the main offender but brings a power to MacDuff that is impressive. That said the cast, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Jack Reynor as Malcolm and the always superb David Hayman as Lennox, all are on top form. True Detective cinematographer Adam Arkapaw captures the squalor and splendour of MacBeth's Scotland with a deftness that uses the long shot to maximum effect. MacBeth looks and sounds perfect.
This is Fassbender and Coltillard's film through and through and they are fabulous, rivalling Mifune and Yamada in my mind as the best screen MacBeths. This film can also be seen as a test case for Fassbender and Kurzel's upcoming Assassin's Creed adaptation, that they are filming along with Arkapaw, which bodes well. Shakespeare scares most of us off, which is a terrible shame as he told incredible tales with a depth of character that few have ever matched. In MacBeth, we have a modern take that brings a level of humanity to a couple that we don't tend to credit with any. This adaptation is superb and I hope it is the first of a wave of new takes on some of our oldest tales.
MacBeth is out now.