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A Note on MacBeth

MacBethThe Bard’s most loyal groupies have their favorite tragedies, comedies and histories and they tend to consider these plays sacred text, which makes adapting them for film a risky endeavor. It takes a delicate touch and a respect for the source material. Even in some masterful hands Shakespeare has not held up when brought to the screen. But in only his second feature director Justin Kurzel brings the tragedy of MacBeth violently alive with beautiful, brutal imagery and a cast of modern master.

You are, I’m sure, familiar with the plot. MacBeth, the loyal Thane of Glamis, receives a prophecy from “three weird sisters” who tell him he will one day be King. But they foretell a fruitless and short-lived reign and the lineage of his loyal soldier Banquo will rule for generations. The lust for power and subsequent fear of being usurped drives him to the brink of madness and he’s ultimately murdered by ambition. No spoiler alert needed it’s been 400 years, shame on you if you didn’t already know MacBeth’s fate.

Battle FieldCinematographer Adam Arkapaw created stunning tableaux filled with fog and filth. We’ve seen this visual approach by both Polanski and Kurosawa but this film sets itself apart by it’s dramatic use of color and hallucinatory style during the initial battle. Juxtaposing extremely warm then cool color palates was appropriately disorienting. They make full use of Scotland and Northern England’s picturesque landscapes and then mire us in the mud and muck of Glamis and cold isolation of Inverness. The production design, the costumes, all of it helped bring my favorite tragedy to life.

The entire cast was nearly perfect; I love Paddy Considine. Michael Fassbender, one of the most talented and fascinating actors working today, plays MacBeth marvelously. He’s one of the rare sorts that can display a raw brutality balanced with vulnerability as his character descends into madness. He is in full form during the banquet scene in which he is haunted by Banquo’s ghost, an ally he ordered murdered. You forget this man is a murderer guilty of regicide and start to sympathize with him; perhaps he is the victim of an unfortunate unavoidable fate that saw him murder both his king and best friend.

FassbenderMarion Cotillard plays his wife, the mastermind behind the traitorous plot. Another top talent, her challenge was compounded by the fact English is not her first language and then she needed to also master the Shakespearean verse. As expected she played the role beautifully, handling the linguistic gymnastics of the dialogue like a veteran of the Shakespearean theater. She’s one of very few actresses that can pull off such a role. This adaptation, however, I feel restrains the potential for what Lady MacBeth could be. Which is where I feel the writer has made one of his critical mistakes.

Marion_Cotillard_Lady_Macbeth-xlargeLady MacBeth is one of my favorite female characters in all literature; a strong woman who pulls the strings of her impressionable husband; a megalomaniac; ambitious to a fault then driven mad by the gruesome chain of events she orchestrated. But the first frame is of a dead child, her child. And I know you’re thinking, “did the MacBeths have a kid?” That has often been up for dispute but the real answer is No. Taking Lady MacBeth and turning her into a grieving mother opposed to the zealous puppet-master weakens her character and changes her motivations. In doing so Marion is somewhat under-utilized. The suggestion that Lady MacBeth might be unstable before she beings plotting their power grab fundamentally changes the character.

This raises the question of how to alter source material to appeal to a modern audience. The writer during a Q&A said he thought it would give something for the audience to relate to with Lady MacBeth. But that isn’t needed. We don’t need her to be relatable, that isn’t her character. I mean, this is the woman that said she would dash out the brains of a child nursing at her breast. You’re not going to relate to her, that’s why she is so intriguing. It should be a lesson for writers to see how one choice, even if it feels minor, can morph your character into something you might not anticipate.

The other flaw centers on how they handled the final acts, which made the climax underwhelming. For MacBeth I’ve always felt it needs the grand finale that you get from something like Throne of Blood (Kurosawa’s altered version of MacBeth). The merits of this film outweigh the flaws so, despite the ending, the imagery and the powerful performances are well worth your time.

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