AFI FEST 2015: Macbeth, by Scott Nye
From this non-scholar’s perspective, there seem to be three basic (sometimes intersecting) ways of going about performing Shakespeare’s work these days. One can do a straightforward dramatic interpretation, honoring the language and performing it in such a way that the conflicts of old-timey times are as resonant as ever. One can make that process a little easier by just transplanting the dialogue and action to a more familiar setting (California beach gangs, contemporary Rome, Joss Whedon’s house, whatever the hell was going on in Julie Taymor’s Titus). Or one can focus on the poetry, dispensing with the need for total clarity and instead using the sound of the words to evoke Shakespeare’s thematic and emotional concerns. Justin Kurzel, working from a screen adaptation by Todd Luiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie, has taken this last road with Macbeth, has crafted a haunting vision of the material, one that twists the iconography of the story and dwells in the paranoia that haunts Macbeth and his wife following their unthinkable act. It is not just a “good Shakespeare movie,” dispensable until the next one comes along; it is a vital and vibrant piece of filmmaking that takes none of its inherited import for granted.
Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), Thane of Glamis, is doing pretty well in his modest, if bloody position as a sort of general, most recently winning a terribly violent battle with allied forces attempting to overthrow the king or gain their independence or any of the other reasons a civil war might erupt. Upon the battle’s finish, three “weird women” come to celebrate his greatness, hailing him as his current title, and as the future Thane of Cawdor (likely a promotion, one thinks) and eventual King of Scotland. Though intrigued, he dismisses them, as one does crazy people, and goes about his business, only to quickly learn that the current Thane of Cawdor has been executed for treason, and the title is now his. This is too wild to be coincidence. At the urging of his wife (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth decides to hurry the prophecy right along, murders the King, and ascends immediately to his position. Things were fluid that way in the 16th century.
But you know what they say, you kill one guy, and you’ll go insane from trying to cover up all the other bodies that seem to stack up along the way. Neither of the Macbeths are able to easily live with themselves. The cavernous castle in which they now live feels more like a tomb, empty and echoing, every “Hail Macbeth!” seeming more appropriate for a public execution than a celebration. The ghosts that haunt Macbeth are not boogeymen, but instead simply lurk in the background, barely perceptible reminders of his grievous offenses against the country he once defended.
As mentioned at the start, Kurzel is less invested in the drama of the story than the emotional and poetic effect of it, and to that end he keeps the scenes relatively short, breaking the soliloquies into a sort of Malickian voiceover that complement Kurzel and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw’s dissociated images of ruined battlefields and mourning kingdoms. Arkapaw previously worked with Kurzel on his truly devastating crime drama Snowtown, but U.S. audiences may know his work best from the first season of True Detective. Like that show, Macbeth ruminates in the strangeness of its locations, evoking more a nightmare of royal Scotland than a historical recreation of it. The scenery is sometimes bathed in red light, drowned in fog, or visible on through some unseen source of light. They use the lack of luminance to narrative ends, indicating a fatal flame by embers dancing in the darkness.
The actors work in perfect concert with this ethereal aim, finding the rhythms in the dialogue and letting the intent take care of itself. Fassbender plays Macbeth in familiar tones, cautiously power-hungry. Though his steps do not feel new, they do feel fresh. There’s something in that sort of skeletal smile he possesses that marks Macbeth as a man already with one foot in the grave. Cotillard brings to Lady Macbeth a level of empathy I’d not seen before; rather than purely driven mad by her complicity, she seems genuinely mournful, saddened by the depths to which she has sunk. The film opens not with the witches, as the play does, but instead with the funeral for their child. This casts the film, and their actions, in an entirely different light. They have little else to live for, and nothing much to lose. They are already dead.
Macbeth plays twice at AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi – November 6th at 9:15pm in the Chinese multiplex, and November 11th at 3:00pm in the Egyptian Theatre. Tickets are available now, for free, at afi.com/afifest.