Friday, March 25, 2016

Macbeth (2015)


I enjoy a good Shakespeare adaptation. Blame all those literary courses I took in college. Perhaps my favorite of the Bard’s plays is Macbeth. I really like the supernatural imagery, the battle of reason against ambition, and all the crazy medieval Scotsman yelling at each other. You don’t see too many adaptations of the Scottish play (could it be the curse?) so I relish the ones I do get. I was pretty excited to see a new version featuring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard and sticking with the medieval setting was music to my ears. Could this be the adaptation I’ve been waiting for?


Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is the fearless vassal to King Duncan (David Thewlis). After engaging in a battle against a traitorous clan, Macbeth and his brother in arms Banquo (Paddy Considine) encounter three witches. These weird sisters prophesize that Mabeth will soon be king and Banquo will be the father of kings. Macbeth finds the idea interesting but maintains his loyalty. However, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) does no such thing. She believes they can make the prophecy happen, with a little push. Soon enough murder is committed, princes are blamed and Macbeth is crowned king of Scotland.

Once he tastes power and understands the means to obtain it, Macbeth begins to see enemies all around him. He targets his old pal Banquo as well as the steadfast lord Macduff (Sean Harris). But Macbeth’s fury and obsession start to look like insanity to those around him and soon an army forms to depose this tyrant. But Macbeth seeks out the witches again and they provide him with three pieces of information that convince the king he is invincible. Is it fate or will that determine the destiny of Macbeth?

Good Points:
  • Some gorgeous cinematography and visual compositions
  • Some unusual and effective twists on the execution of elements of the play
  • The cast really seems to be engaged in the roles

Bad Points:
  • Thick accents may make some of the dialogue difficult to follow
  • The music is distracting and ineffective
  • The pacing is glacial and the whole film lacks any energy


Ouch. This movie hurt, and I really like this play, but man was this a misfire. It all comes down to the directorial choices. Justin Kurzel tries to imbue every line of dialogue with meaning and portentousness. This results in long gaps between lines, meaningful staring and everyone speaking as if they are so deep and serious that there is not a drop of passion or energy on the screen. When the story should deliver impact it just shambles toward you with no power at all. Such a disappointment.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 4
Music: 1
Direction: 2
Entertainment: 1
Total:  1

In Depth Review

A showdown in a personal hell.
What is Macbeth really about at its core? It is about a man who lets his desire for power overwhelm is judgment. Once he has this power, he fears to lose it, and starts to destroy everything and everyone around him in the effort to keep the power. Folded in and around this is the concept of free will. Is Macbeth a pawn of God (or the devil) or does Macbeth forge his destiny at the suggestion of the witches?

So at the very least an adaptation of Macbeth must capture these two elements and deliver them with a punch. We should see something of ourselves in the Thane turned King. But Kurzel manages to defeat both of these elements and renders the story inert. And Shakespeare should never be inert.

Let’s focus on the positive elements first. Visually, I really love where Kurzel was going with this interpretation of the play. He puts it in a medieval world that seems to still be crawling out of the dark ages. Much of the costumes, sets and armor appear to be inspired by Viking elements, giving everything a rough and earthy feel. There is no pageantry here. It is a gritty and roughhewn world these characters inhabit.

Lady Macbeth: shrouded in death.
The lighting in the movie has a very natural look, reminding me strongly of Zefferelli’s Hamlet from 1990. And like that film it brings a sense of humanity to the setting. But it also adds an interesting chill to the proceedings in this version of Macbeth. Not only does the land feel frosty cold, but the chill seeps into the performances and music. It is an interesting and effective visual style.

The two battle scenes that bookend the film are also wonderfully realized. The first occurs in a fog-shrouded heath. Shapes of armed men emerge and melt into the mist and it as the struggle plays out it creates this wonderful uncertainty to the events. The screen is bathed in blues and greys. It also reminded me of the final battle in Excalibur where Arthur faces Mordred for their apocalyptic showdown. In many ways, this battle is the start of the apocalypse for Macbeth.

The climax of the film occurs on a battlefield enshrouded by the smoke of the burning Birnam wood. Once again the figures of warriors appear and disappear in the smoke. But this time the world is a blazing orange. The fires of hell are all around Macbeth, a hell of his own making or a hell always destined for him?

These scenes are striking and will probably stick in my mind whenever I think about this version of Macbeth.

The witches see all, but what do they know?
I also liked how Kurzel took some of the supernatural elements of the story and twisted them in unexpected ways. In this version, Macbeth has two sons who die, leaving him without heirs. And don’t worry purists, Kurzel tells their stories through pure visuals, no new lines were added. The eldest boy dies during the opening battle. Macbeth is helpless to save the boy. This lad appears during the film. He is the one offering his father the dagger to slay Duncan in the famous “Is this a dagger I see before me?” monologue. He also appears as the blood-stained ghost that tells Macbeth that “none of women born may harm Macbeth”. I really like this take, as it gives a personal touch to the action, and allows us to understand Macbeth’s madness.

Even Lady Macbeth’s “out damn spot” speech is impacted by the appearance of her youngest child, whose death opens the film. Using these ghostly children is eerie and adds to both characters in a way I’ve never seen done in this play before.

But I can’t avoid it any more. I gave this film a 1, and there is a very good reason for that. I wanted to turn it off. Honestly, I was so frustrated with the viewing experience that I really considered stopping the film. But I kept hoping it was going to improve, that Kurzel was setting up his film in an unexpected way and I’d see what he was doing by the end. But nothing changed and the film limped along.

No time to enjoy our new found power. Let's
plot more murders!
There is very little passion in this version of Macbeth.  This is the story of a man who is driven by his desire for power. But Fassbender’s performance is cold and aloof. I see some simmering emotions appear here and there in the first act of the play, but they didn’t convince me of his desire for power. After the murder of Duncan, Fassbender plays the king as insane and paranoid. But it is a performance that still feels cold. A few moments allow us to feel the fear, horror and rage that the character goes through, but Fassbender often underplays them.

Lady Macbeth fares little better. Her key scenes in the first third feel distanced as well. I wasn’t feeling her desires. A few moments worked well, especially her torment when she sees the fate of Macduff’s family. But once again these moments were so few.

Both Fassbender and Cotillard have delivered excellent performances in previous films. So what happened?

Either Fassbender's falling asleep or I am.
It was the direction. Nearly all the lines are delivered slowly, with huge pauses after each sentence ends. The camera holds on the actor and then switches to the other. You get another ponderous delivery with so much gravity given to each word you wonder that the whole film doesn’t turn into a black hole right there. Then another pause as meaningful looks are shared.

I get it. You’ve got a movie dealing with murder for power. You’ve got characters who are living in a harsh and cold world. You’ve got fear dripping from every moment of the story. I can see how tackling certain key scenes in this manner would work well. But not every scene.

Case in point. The murder of Duncan takes forever to unfold. Not only are all the lines delivered in the slow style, but Macbeth takes his sweet time wandering over to Duncan’s tent and killing him. The murder itself is brutal and violent (as it should be) but lacks impact because it took so long to occur. Was Kurzel attempting to build tension? I’m not sure, but I didn’t see a man destroying his humanity for the sake of power. I just saw a really slow moving guy suddenly lash out. Didn’t know he had it in him.

Don't just stand there, do something!
To compound the problem is the issue of the accents. I appreciate that everyone went for the Scottish accent and we got plenty of Scottish actors in the film. Macbeth is the Scottish play so that is great. But even speaking this slowly I had trouble understanding some characters, and I know this play really well. My wife is less versed in this play and she had a real hard time figuring out what they were saying. To be clear, we both watch a lot of films and television from the British Isles, so accents are not usually that big of a problem. But man, this was a tough one. I really wonder if it was the sound mixing that made some of the dialogue sound so muddled.

One thing that I really think contributed to the issue was the score. Modern film scoring preferences rear their ugly head again. I don’t want to sound like a Film Score geek whining here, but we get an atmospheric score instead of a thematic one. Fine, that can still work. But instead of something that supports the film we get these odd long drawn out cello performances. They are dissonant reminding me of work for a horror film. They permeate the score adding additional weight and dourness to the whole thing. You get moments of lots of low-end string instruments churning away, creating some tension, but also distancing us from the emotions. The music feels like oppressive fear from the first moment and stays oppressive throughout. The result is that the atmosphere has no arc, it is flat and turgid. Worse it is distracting. I got pulled out of the film many times wondering what the heck the composer was going for with all that droning.

I will say the adaptation of the play works fine. This version of Macbeth has scenes removed and shortened. I didn’t notice anything vital missing, and this isn’t one of the longer plays to begin with. But the execution makes this feel like it is ten times longer than it is.

Yeah playing with your sword might be more
fun than watching this.
I’m not sure what Kurzel was going for here. He has some wonderful imagery and some really interesting concepts for executing the supernatural elements. I even like how he handled the witches. They can be tricky. Go too over the top and the whole play feels silly. But he keeps them very low key and mysterious. I think he could have gone a bit further with that idea, but what we do get works fine.

The ponderous execution of the dialogue, the dreary dourness of all the performances (the entire run of the film) and the overwhelming atmosphere of oppression and importance crushes the viewer. I didn’t feel a connection here. I didn’t feel any passion here. By trying to keep things low key, gritty and important, the life is sucked out of the story. Compare this to Ralph Fiennes powerful and passionate take on Coriolanus and the difference is clear. You can make a Shakespeare adaptation of Macbeth work if you embrace the lust for power, embrace the deep fear, embrace the paranoia and embrace that final moment of nihilism that sends Macbeth into the blade of Macduff. The emotions are what deliver that final catharsis. Without them, the story is hollow. Give this one a pass and see Akira Kurosawa’s take on the same story samurai style. Throne of Blood captures everything Macbeth is about.

You want to see Macbeth? I'll show you Macbeth!
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  1. Shakespeare always represents a challenge to moviemakers. The truth is that most people haven’t read Shakespeare since they were forced to do so in high school; during a play or movie, they are one step behind in unraveling the Elizabethan dialogue. An uninspired production can seem to them more like work than entertainment. Often producers just throw up their hands and order complete rewrites (e.g. “West Side Story” and “10 Things I Hate about You”). Yet, faithful productions can work for modern audiences. But “ponderous” is definitely a killer adjective. The original productions, after all, were NOT intended to be ponderous. MacBeth has so much going for it that is a shame to see a production sink on a rock of boredom. There is no excuse for making MacBeth boring.

    Having grown up with the trilled “r’s” and glottal stops of my grandmother from Glasgow, Scottish accents are no problem for me, but is sounds as though must else would be.

    One of the most interesting “Macbeths” I’ve seen was an off-Broadway version in Greenwich Village. It was set among gangsters in a 1920s speakeasy. Oh, Lady Macbeth was in drag, the weird sisters were dressed as exotic dancers, and the play was a musical. Will’s iambs were surprisingly adaptable to blues songs. The dialogue was original (they spoke of Scotland, not Chicago, despite the sets, costumes, and music) with only a handful of cuts and one addition (a Sonnet as a blues song): nothing non-Shakespeare was in the dialogue/songs. It worked.

    Yet nothing this radical is necessary. A simple college stage production at Drew University worked too.

    1. Yeah making a Shakespeare play boring is something any version should avoid. And I know they didn't go into this with that intent. But I really think they oversold the oppressive mood they created. The whole play doesn't need to be so one note, in fact it should rise and fall but steadily climb to the climax. Again, "Throne of Blood" does this so well. The finale of the film with Mifune facing down his attackers with defiant rage and being peppered with arrows is something you never forget. But the movie builds to that moment. But the time you reach the end of the 2015 version you don't feel the climax is earned. It isn't thrilling or compelling, you're just waiting for it to end.

      I've seen the play live a couple times. The local college does a summer Shakespeare event each year, and their version of Macbeth was very good. Lots of atmospheric sets and cool lighting effects for the ghosts and witches. They had a lot of fun turning it into a haunted house style play. There was even a gore warning on the signs. "There will be blood". Yes indeed.

      The other version I saw was a very poor community theater version. Poor acting, hilarious costumes and sets (they called it rehearsal dress style) and a male witch that was chewing so much scenery I swear he was having a fit or something. The capper was when the ghost of Banquo came out in sweats with some catsup... I mean blood, dribbled on his chest, and just gave Macbeth this open mouthed stare.

      it took all my power to not start riffing on the whole thing right there. I should have recorded it and made my own MST3K. It was hilariously bad. But even at that point, it was entertaining. It even beat the 2015 version in that way.

      That 20s version sounds great! Reminds me of a corporate takeover version of "Julius Caesar" they were putting on in L.A. bout six years ago.

  2. Good review. Kurosawa is an excellent director isn't he? It's been a while since I've seen any Shakespeare. I can't remember the last one I've seen. Shakespeare in Love was a good film, but not based on anything he wrote, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I've always enjoyed Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet and it's been a while since I've seen it.

    Fassbender is a good actor though and I'm choppin' to see his take on Steve Jobs. Slow West was a pretty good film too. In fact he's already racked up a pretty good number of films he's been in.

    If you enjoy Shakespeare and haven't seen Michael Wood's documentary, In Search Of Shakespeare, check it out. I've been meaning to re-watch it as well. I used to have a friendly debate with a friend who asked how Shakespeare could have written so many plays and was basically illiterate (or that's the gist of his argument, I paraphrase). Michael Wood addresses a small part of that. My slant is that artistry lands willy nilly. It's sort of God-given or there's no explicable reason for it. Sure it can be honed, but seems to be something mysterious. Besides I'm too much a romantic to think otherwise.

    1. Kurosawa is one of my favorites. I keep meaning to write a review or two about some of my favorite movies from his filmography, but so much has already been said and said so well, I'm not sure I can add to it.

      Not all of his movies are masterpieces (no matter what some critics say) and he really takes his time to set up stories. But when it all clicks it is hard to dismiss "Seven Samurai", "Throne of Blood", "Yojimbo", "Sanjuro", "Hidden Fortress", "Rashomon", or "Ran". I've seen of few of his non-period films and while they are good, they usually have an element that doesn't quite click with me. "Stray Dog" has a great first third and final third, but drags in the middle. "High and Low" is excellent in the first half, but loses some steam when it becomes a police procedural. "The Bad Sleep Well" is essentially "Hamlet" put in 50s Japan, and has a great core concept, but really bogs down about half way through.

      One of his most unusual films, "Dreams" is a visual playground. So many different things going on in it. Not all of it works, but he creates images that you'll never forget. That huge rainbow in the first story always pops into my head when someone mentions that movie.

      I've never heard of that documentary. Sounds like a good one.