Mac the Knife

Macbeth  A film by Justin Kurzel

My wife thinks this film is a great work of art which captures the original primal energy of the Macbeth story, and thinks everyone should go see it (though she acknowledges not everyone will.  By a long shot).  I thought it was an interesting production but had lots of reservations about it, and wasn’t ultimately as wowed as she.  I may be in the minority.

My first hesitation came when I saw the film’s running time (1 hr. 52 min.) and realized it was a vast abridgement of the play.  It would depend how you staged it, of course, but a full production would probably take closer to three hours.  I saw one when I was a teenager at the tiny Cape May Playhouse, smoke billowing all over the place in that original scene with the witches.  I was ready to call the fire department.  Everyone who stages a Shakespeare play abridges it in some way, so I wasn’t overly surprised.  But I wondered at the length.

I then flinched when I saw the actors lining up to enact the battle scene that opens the play, one that Shakespeare reports entirely in dialogue.  I liked it that director Justin Kurzel showed the armies to be full of young men, boys really, who were armed with clubs and axes and various other implements, and who looked scared shitless.  That seemed realistic.  But then one army gave off a deafening roar (how many people are we talking about here?), and what followed was a scene of balletic blood-letting, the kind of thing that directors seem to delight it, people getting whacked with axes and clubs, throats being slit, periodic uses of slow mo so we could see the blood spurt.  I’m surprised they didn’t have instant reply from different angles, like an NFL game.  I’m sure Kurzel would say we need to see the horror of war, but I have a feeling that the true horror is a lot more banal and less balletic than that.  (If you want the horror of war, read The Red Badge of Courage—by someone who imagined it—or The Thin Red Line, by someone who was there.)  It was the kind of scene directors love to choreograph.  But I was disappointed to see it in a Shakespeare production.

We’re removed from the language of Shakespeare’s day, my wife explained to me later, so the director had to render the scene in another way.  But Shakespeare is all about language; that was his overwhelming greatness as a writer.  The “actors” in his day were mostly just standing there declaiming lines.  My Shakespeare professor in college, an old theater buff himself, once said that, if we wanted to present Shakespeare in a medium that is most like what the playwright intended, we should listen to them on the radio.  I’m not sure we have to go that far, but the man had a point.  The plays center on language.

And I get tired of graphic violence.  I expect it when I go to a James Bond movie, or one about drug dealers.  But do I have to sit through this crap when I go to Shakespeare?

Macbeth is a play about a man who overthrows the essential moral order of his world—he kills the King—and finds himself in a spiral of violence that ends, inevitably, in his own death.  He’s led to these actions by a bunch of women, first the Weird Sisters, or whatever they’re called, who predict his coming Kingship, then by his wife, the scheming Lady Macbeth (who in many productions is the central character).  Macbeth is an ambitious man who doesn’t have the balls to act out his ambitions, but his wife and the witches push him over the edge.  It’s a brilliant play about what happens when you violate the essential moral order, the way that violence leads only to more violence.

The Weird Sisters in this production were fine, and plenty weird (they looked like a trio of Wiccans from up here in Asheville), but another problem was that I didn’t quite believe in Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth.  She’s a lovely woman, and a fine actress, and there was one scene where, as she was persuading her husband, they were actually getting it on—I like that kind of action—but I wasn’t persuaded that this lovely young woman was the ruthless and bloodthirsty character Shakesepeare portrays.  In the same way, Michael Fassbender, as a macho war hero on a par with Sylvester Stallone, didn’t seem to need much persuading; he mouthed the words of reluctance, but seemed ready to go from the first time he saw the weird sisters.  In that way, I felt that the director was changing the fundamental dynamic of the play.

I liked the early setting.  Macbeth invites King Duncan back to his place on his way to the castle (accepting that invitation was Duncan’s fatal mistake), and the Thane of Glames, as he is at the beginning of the movie, lives in a collection of run-down shacks that look like North Carolina tobacco barns, though he had enough candles in one of them to sink a ship.  The killing of the King was another gore-fest; a knife to the heart doesn’t do the job, and the victim groans and growls and flails around, covering everything with blood.

When Macbeth has been named King and moves on to the castle, it is comparatively vast and luxurious, and we see some reason for his ambition (at first, when we see those shacks, we’re thinking, this is the kingdom you want to reign over?), but things begin to unravel almost immediately.  I thought Kurzel handled the famous banquet scene fairly well, though it seemed weirdly like some kind of military drill, with Lady M calling the shots, but there were all kinds of gratuitous changes to the play as a whole that I didn’t understand: in the play Lady Macduff and her children are slaughtered in their own castle, but here they were brought to Macbeth’s castle, so he could have the pleasure of burning them alive (and we could have the pleasure of watching the children squirm as they awaited the torch); Lady Macbeth enacts her famous sleepwalking scene—though she seems wide awake—but for some reason has gone back to those old shacks of theirs, rather than being in the castle (my wife tells me that was a dream sequence, the vision in her mind).  She makes reference to her stained hands but doesn’t even looks at them.  By that time the whole production wasn’t making sense to me.

I’m all for new and daring productions of Shakespeare.  I loved the recent Much Ado About Nothing.  I’m all for directors taking risks.  But when a production seems to change the focus of the original play, and when it doesn’t center on language, it doesn’t seem to be Shakespeare anymore.  If I want an action movie I’ll go see Star Wars.