I cannot tell you with what excitement we in Clan Murphy anticipated the Michael Fasbender/Marion Cotillard Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel. The trailers looked amazing. This, we all thought, was going to be the adaptation we’d been waiting for–cinematic, powerful, spooky. We were there the first showing of the first day it opened here in Ashland at the Varsity.
And yet we left the theatre a little less than two hours later disgruntled. Or at least, as Bertie Wooster might say, less than gruntled.
Maybe our expectations were two high. But if so, it’s interesting that it was easy for us to agree on what was missing in this otherwise gorgeous (yes, cinematic, sometimes powerful, and wonderfully atmospheric) film.
First, the Fair.
- The movie is one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve ever seen. Breathtaking. Surely an Oscar nom is in order for the DP, Adam Arkapaw.
- The performances are strong and deep. Fassbender was born to play this role, and Cotillard, though gorgeous, has always had a wonderful capacity to play scary and dangerous as well as vulnerable.
- The battle scenes are exciting and raw–Shakespeare meets Braveheart.
- The director, Justin Kurzel, has some terrific ideas and stagings that make this familiar story fresh. [SPOILER ALERT! READ BELOW ONLY IF YOU’VE SEEN THE MOVIE!]
- Opening with the Macbeths burying a dead child sets up their burgeoning nihilism nicely, and solves a couple of textual problems. (Lady M’s “I have given suck…” in spite of their obvious childlessness and lack of an heir.)
- Adding a vision of a little girl to the Weird Sisters underlines the above, and sets up a wonderful reading of the play as an intergenerational tragedy that begins with the loss of children and ends with it.
- Staging the “Burnham wood come to Dunsinane” as a forest fire, kindled by the invading English, that sends bits of wood ash and embers raining down on Castle Dunsinane. Way cool.
- Closing the film with a crosscut between young Malcolm, taking up the fallen crown, and the even younger Fleance, Banquo’s surviving son, picking up Macbeth’s sword and running with it into a sea of blood-colored mist, as if going after Malcolm. This terrific bit of staging closes the circle of the witch’s prophecy that (in spite of Malcolm’s inheriting the throne at the end of the play) Banquo would be the father of kings. The heritage of war and regicide is passed down from one generation to the next. Terrific. Wish I’d thought of that.
The not-so Fair
So with all these amazing attributes, what was it that so disappointed us?
Coming out of the film, I was reminded of a conversation I had almost twenty years ago with the late great Stephen Hemming, a fabulous actor at the American Players Theater and the Milwaukee Rep. At lunch one day, my husband and I asked Stephen, who’d just done a show-stopping Iago in an APT production of Othello, if he ever wanted to play Hamlet. Stephen said no, he thought he wasn’t suited to the role–Hamlet was too intellectual, too much in-his-head. Stephen wanted to play Macbeth–an obviously smart man but one who acts first and thinks about it later. A man of action and a ferocious will.
That, I thought after seeing this new Macbeth, was what was so sorely missing. It wasn’t so much, I think, in Fassbender’s performance as it is in the overall tone and pacing of the film. This less-than-two hour movie that began like a blockbuster ended up feeling like a three-hour art house film that never quite climaxed.
I have to blame the director. Justin Kurzel assembled this most action-packed and plot-driven of Shakespeare’s plays slowly and quietly and deliberately, one scene after another. With the exception of a couple of rousing moments, every scene was padded with lengthy silences and every exchange of dialogue was spoken slowly in hushed voices. While each scene, viewed separately, could be appreciated as a wonderful take on the given text, taken all together they built no momentum and little in the way of emotional arc. The overall effect was a hundred and ten minutes of simmer and sizzle that never quite got to a burn, let alone a roaring fire.
In our view, the other problem with this lack of variety in the pacing of scenes made the ones that should be suddenly quiet and meditative—the Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow speech, for instance–disappear into the general fog. For me, it was just one more in an interminable series of closeups of Macbeth, seething.
Last but not least, my son John, who has wanted to direct a movie adaptation of Macbeth since he first studied Shakespeare as a kid, has long lamented the inability of directors to get the witches right. (Especially after reading Garry Wills’ Witches and Jesuits.) Again, along the lines of tone, Kurzel’s Weird Sisters, while shot beautifully, are, to put it mildly, insufficiently weird. The lack of Weirdness jars with the text (and jarred me as an audience member). I never got anything resembling that creep, that thrill of horror, that the text says Macbeth and Banquo got–the thrill and horror and creep one gets from, say, the weaver of Fate in Throne of Blood. (Cristofer Jean did a rip-roaring, spine-tingling version of this in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Throne of Blood in 2010.)
Speaking of, Throne of Blood was a miracle of pacing–rather, using a variety of pacing to brilliant effect. While Mifune’s Macbeth is a tornado of action and aggression, Lady M is as still–and deadly–as a grave. The impact of this contrast over the course of the movie is stunning.
And as for creep, no one can outdo Kurosawa’s version of the Weird Sister(s). (Click on this link to Turner Classic Movie’s clip of the “witch” scene in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood: