Monday, 26 October 2015

Movie Review: Macbeth (2015)



Shakespeare is far and away the most adapted writer in human history, which makes the prospect of reviewing one of the thousand films based on his work a little daunting. Not only that, as much as some scholars would eagerly wish to argue, the man’s work is full of notoriously intricate language that can prove rather difficult to read. As someone who has a serious habit of comparing films to each other, even when it isn’t called for, how am I to know whether or not the supposedly ‘fresh’ ideas presented in one adaptation haven’t already been made cornerstones of the work previously? Is there nearly enough time in the world for me to spool through every work just to be sure? Is it even worth me doing so in the first place? This is where I come face-to-face with the reason I started this blog in the first place: To learn. I have never made any pretence about my own knowledge involving the medium: Everything I claim to know about film, I have learnt in passing and I am by no means a definitive voice on anything except my own personal tastes and opinions. So, with that unnaturally heavy introduction to another one of my typically idiosyncratic and scatterbrained analyses out of the way, time to get into today’s film. This is the 2015 filmed iteration of Macbeth.

The plot: Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), a general in the army of the Scottish King Duncan (David Thewlis), is told by a group of witches (Seylan Baxter, Lynn Kennedy, Kayla Fallon and Amber Rissmann) that he shall become the next king. This starts a bloody path to the throne carved by Macbeth and his wife (Marion Cotillard) in order to secure his place. But as their actions begin to take their toll on the couple, another Thane by the name of Macduff (Sean Harris) rises to oppose the new king.

When talking about an adaptation of Shakespeare, it is less about the efficacy of the text itself (which kind of sucks for someone who fixates on scripts as much as I do) and more about the delivery of said text. With that in mind, this is a very well-casted film. Fassbender portrays the reckless ambition, madness and eventual remorse of Macbeth expertly, even if he may speak a little too softly at first (much like the rest of the cast). It is a familiar reading of the play that shows Lady Macbeth as the true villain of the piece, something that makes Cotillard’s casting make sense given how she has been able to pull off antagonistic wives before in films like Inception. However, in today’s day and age that seems almost gun-shy about portraying female villains on screen, it makes sense that she would be portrayed here as more remorseful and dutiful, again something that Cotillard pulls off astoundingly well. Paddy Considine, someone I’m always glad to see on film, brings a very strong presence with him on screen as Banquo, both living and when he appears later as a ghost to serve as the catalyst for Fassbender’s single best scene in the film. Sean Harris, almost in direct contrast to his performance in Rogue Nation, plays Macduff with such raw and seething emotion that it’s still difficult to believe that these two were played by the same actor. Even Elizabeth Debicki as Lady Macduff, despite only having one notable scene with dialogue (and another with immense screaming), gives it everything she’s got.

Director Justin Kurzel, otherwise known as the guy who’s currently making the Assassin’s Creed movie… okay, seriously, there is such a thing as giving me too many jokes to work with. I mean, going from Shakespeare to video game adaptation? Sometimes, my brain just runs away from me on its own little journeys; back to business. Kurzel had the best idea possible when it comes to Shakespeare adaptations: Use what films can do but theatre cannot and tell the story as visually as possible. While it may give lip service to its theatrical origins with the opening showing a faux-curtain raise, this puts the visuals afforded it by the medium to good use: the hazy aesthetic for the dream sequences, the dirt-encrusted battlefields, the orange, almost apocalyptic tint in the climactic encounter between Macbeth and Macduff; for a film this thick with blood and grime, it is gorgeous to look at. Between this and his work on Snowtown, I insist that cinematographer Adam Arkapaw gets more feature film work. Add to this the powerful performances, which make not the legendary iambs of the text but the space between them important, particularly with Fassbender during his quieter moments like him preparing to murder King Duncan or reacting to the death of his wife. All of this makes the notion of watching this film as a means of experiencing the original text a more than viable option; in short, what an adaptation of anything should strive for.

Beyond the depiction of the text through how it is performed by the actors and how it is shown by the director, there’s also the matter of how the text is interpreted by the writers to consider. Unless your name is Kenneth Branagh, it isn’t realistic to keep every single line intact when making a film and whatever lines are cut out could very well end up warping the intent of the text itself. It’s all a matter of what to focus on, which has led to some good (Keeping it contemporary to its setting like with Zeffirelli’s Romeo & Juliet), bad (name all the guns after swords so you don’t have to change the lines like with Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet) and outright weird (bringing incestual and bestial connotations to the forefront like with Kaufmann and Gunn’s Tromeo & Juliet) results. Here, they put the lens’ focus on Macbeth’s motives and why exactly he is so determined to become king: So that he will have a legacy to leave behind. The film opens on a particularly grim note involving child death, setting the thematic tone for the rest of the film. Children become a visual motif through the film from then on: an additional witch in the form of a child (which serves as a grim reminder for Macbeth), Lady Macbeth’s famous monologue being done to the hallucination of a child covered in black spots; this is the kind of creativity and reinterpretation that adds to the Shakespearean track record of rendering the “why bother making it a film?” argument moot. One of the more famous quotes from the play, which is thankfully kept intact in this iteration, comes from Macbeth in reaction to Lady Macbeth’s passing: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Ultimately, that is what this film is. Through the slow burn of the soundtrack and the fantastically visceral action scenes, all that our Macbeth is left with at the end is nothing with which to craft his legacy. In the end, all of his actions came to signify nothing for his own name. To be able to wring all of this out of the text, it can’t have been an idiot who told this particular tale.

All in all, this is the kind of Shakespeare I like to see on the big screen. While keeping its setting and time period contemporary to the original text, through its masterful direction and great performances, it creates new context for the action as described by the dialogue to give new meaning to the text. The only real down side I see here is that the actors can be a little too soft-spoken in places to be entirely legible, which may be a problem if you aren’t as familiar with the text. It’s better than The Martian, as this doesn’t have any overt moments of cheesiness to weigh down the drama. However, out of respect to my own selfish want for writing that leaves me something to chew on, Irrational Man only just wins out. Kindly don't read too much into the idea of Woody Allen being better than Shakespeare. If you have the patience and wherewithal to watch Shakespeare for reasons other than mandated study, this is most definitely one to check out.

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