When I was introduced to The Scottish Play (also known as Macbeth to those not of a superstitious disposition) during high school, the story was simplified in a way that has foreshadowed my view of every adaptation I see. In the easiest terms for children to understand, I was taught that when Macbeth’s mad obsession with power increases, Lady Macbeth’s earlier obsession with him gaining power (when he was disinterested) decreases and she falls victim to a different, more fatal, kind of madness. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth have character arcs driving in opposite directions, a simple but effective narrative trick that has ensured it is one of Shakespeare’s most beloved (and frequently adapted) plays.
Yet cinematic adaptations seem to have forgotten this, all but marginalising the female lead in order to make it the Macbeth show, ignoring that the duelling nature of their character arcs is what not only makes the play interesting, but so goddamned entertaining. Director Justin Kurzel is yet another director to forget this; he has made a rare adaptation of a play that is cinematic to the extent you can’t even imagine how it would work on stage, but has needlessly sacrificed so many of the interesting elements in order to make it that way. Don’t be fooled by the casting of Marion Cotillard, one of the best actresses alive, in the role of Lady Macbeth. Her character is yet again ill-served, in order to make this all about the title character, whose fate isn’t as dramatically satisfying when not juxtaposed with that of his lady indoors.
The story of Macbeth is so well known that a plot synopsis is all but irrelevant; on the battlefields during the Scottish civil war, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is approached by three witches who tell him he will be king. His wife, Lady Macbeth, suggests he should murder the unpopular King Duncan (David Thewlis) and seize his throne, and with power, madness prevails in different ways in both sides of the marriage. Kurzel has given audiences the most abstract adaptation of the story to date, even with a cheap-looking title card, seemingly added at the last minute in post-production (in a way reminiscent of the opening title card in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising), telling us the background of the story, he doesn’t make any concessions to people unfamiliar with the play. This means many of his infuriating narrative decisions of picking and choosing what to adapt will make it borderline incomprehensible to people dipping their toes into the work of the bard for the first time.
Kurzel makes sure it is cinematic; cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who previously worked with the director on his previous feature Snowtown (as well as winning an Emmy for his work on True Detective), gives us a visual experience so stunning it briefly erases the memory this was ever performed on something as inexpensive as a stage. But Kurzel overuses many techniques to the point of redundancy- the amount of slow motion used reminded me of a gag in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace where Marenghi claims that the technique was used in every non-dialogue scene in order to get each episode to fill the allotted running time. It’s strange he spends so much time working out the visual techniques when he could use the time adapting Lady Macbeth’s story to its desired effect, instead of greeting it with a virtual shrug.
Luckily, there are plenty of images here (and impressive sound design) that will replay in my head for days; the hallucinatory reappearance of the three witches may be the best cinematic imagining of those anti-deus ex machinas so far. As a piece of filmmaking on a technical level it is indeed a triumph, but as a piece of storytelling it doesn’t have the same impact Shakespeare’s original work did; three screenwriters have been hired to make a less effective version of a play one man (or two, depending on your belief of conspiracy theories) wrote conclusively centuries earlier. They have needlessly made a more “adult” version of the play, which at least works for the most part – the battle sequences are thrillingly bloody, but did we really need a Macbeth sex scene? Especially one that doesn’t even begin with Lady Macbeth saying “Is that a dagger I see before me, or are you just excited to see me?”
This is a rare Shakespeare adaptation not characterised on the strengths of the performances, but rather the moody atmosphere the director creates. Michael Fassbender is naturally amazing in the lead role, but a lot of the emotional heft is lost behind the visuals, leaving great performances of narratively significant characters stranded amidst the scenery, fighting to be included in a story they have always been sufficient factors of. Macbeth does signal Justin Kurzel as a visionary director to watch, it just feels like he’s made this film too early in his career; he outdoes himself trying to forge a unique visual style, assuming that the already well-established narrative will translate to his film seamlessly. Very few Shakespeare adaptations can lay claim to being style over substance, which at least ensures Macbeth is unique.