October 5, 2015, by Peter Kirwan

Macbeth @ Hyde Park Cinema, Leeds

Justin Kurzel’s new film of Macbeth, one of the most frequently filmed of all Shakespeare’s plays, arrives carrying with it the threat of modishness. Capitalising on the success of the Game of Thrones ‘medieval’ aesthetic template, and starring the so-hot-right-now Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, themselves successful arthouse/mainstream crossover actors, the film’s formula for artistic credibility and commercial success at this moment is canny. Yet while Kurzel’s film is very much of its moment, its aspirations are much higher, attempting to find a specifically cinematic language rather than merely shoot the play. The results are sometimes mixed, but never less than beautiful.

The Thrones influence is most obvious in the film’s real-world photography, placing its figures against an expansive backdrop of mountains, lakes, heaths and cliffs. The stark landscape dwarfs the players, its foggy wildness ungovernable and its spaces untraversable. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography exaggerates blues and reds appropriate to the mood of the scene, most often greying out the human figures (themselves often hooded or otherwise protected from the elements), and the camera prioritises low angles that fill the screen with sky or distant peaks. When Duncan’s army arrives at Macbeth’s tiny stockade, they camp out in tents; it is only as king that Macbeth finds the relative sanctuary of stone walls, residing in a cathedral. Lady Macduff is hunted down while running, screaming, with her children through a forest; Lady Macbeth wanders off into the hills; the final battle takes place on the slopes outside Dunsinane, framed by the burning embers of Birnam Wood. This is Scotland’s story.

The emphasis on the visual is painterly, which works both in and against the film’s favour. This is by some distance the most static and slow Macbeth I’ve ever seen. Battle scenes have occasional moments of fervoured violence, but for most of their time are shot in extreme slow-motion or still frame, flecks of blood captured in loving close-up as they sail past faces. Actors stand or sit in fixed positions, often blocked in theatrical lines all facing forward (there was some reminiscence of Cheek by Jowl’s production in this). In movement terms, in fact, the production is closer to Throne of Blood than to any other adaptation of the play, the stillness and restraint fitting the actors into a pictorial composition, framed by the landscape. At its best, the effect is of a graphic novel. The freeze frames of armies rushing at one another have the negative capability of a splash page, capturing the anticipation rather than the realisation of the moment. The long speeches delivered with minimal movement have the effect of speech bubbles, actors establishing a mood for their entire speech rather than inflecting each individual word. And scenes build towards the iconic visual image – Macbeth and Macduff slumped next to one another in the glare of flames, the screaming face of a boy, the long procession of Duncan’s body.

This stillness is most notable in Fassbender’s performance. The vast majority of his lines are delivered in close-up, his eyes fixed unrelentingly on a point in the near-to-middle distance, with his eyes empty and his face absolutely still apart from the most necessary movements of his mouth, and his pitch and volume entirely static, restrained to a low growl. The film in fact makes a virtue of literal monotony – there is almost no variation in pace, volume, tone, cadence or expression in the whole two hours. The effect of this is to make every small movement important – in Fassbender’s case, simply darting his eyes to the right speaks volumes about his uncertainty before killing Duncan, and by the time of his near-madness when he tilts his entire head slightly to the left to address Lady Macbeth, the power of his restraint is clear. This Macbeth is almost entirely emptied of human feeling by his experiences of war, the hollowness of his eyes and words showing barely any reaction to the horrors around him.

Sometimes, however, the monotony is actually monotonous, and even boring. Scenes are played out at extraordinary length, making a two hour film feel at least half as long again, and too often the film mistakes slow-motion and pause for actual nuance. The text is decimated, which on the one hand makes for an effective filmic translation of the play’s atmosphere, but on the other removes much of the complexity and equivocation from the narrative. In particular, the removal of almost all Macbeth’s spoken anxieties (especially after the murder) reduces Lady Macbeth’s role to near-irrelevance; the complete cutting of the English scene before the arrival of Ross leaves Malcolm and Macduff with a single note to their plotlines; and the cutting of any potentially extraneous character or dialogue (the Porter entirely; the Doctor except to react to Macbeth’s query about the Queen’s health; the smaller Thane roles discussing Macbeth’s tyranny; the murderers’ dialogue except for reporting Banquo’s death) narrows the focus myopically. This is an artist’s particularly nihilistic impression of Macbeth’s experience, played out agonisingly slowly over two hours in a single tone. The effect is of a sonorous sound poem set to stunning photography, but of little dramatic interest; and at times (such as the stoic reaction of everyone but Macduff to Duncan’s murder) it makes for anti-climax. Imagine Game of Thrones if every character was Stannis Baratheon. Most damagingly, the words are consistently spoken for their quality of sound rather than for their meaning. Throughout (most significantly the ‘sleepwalking’ scene and Macbeth’s soliloquies) there is little sense that the actors know or care what the words mean, everything being delivered in the same portentous mood.

Yet if the film is monotonous, it is at a captivating and powerful pitch. The tone is set by the introductory scene showing the Macbeths carrying out funeral rites for their dead bairn, followed by an image of women watching them from the hills. The witches appear as bystanders at the battlefield, three women accompanied by a young girl and a babe-in-arms. It is implied, though unclear, that either the little girl or the baby is that of the Macbeths, the women seemingly drawn to collect the dead or fleeing – it is they who provide an improbable escape for Fleance. Later, the sleepwalking scene is reimagined as Lady Macbeth riding to an isolated chapel where she delivers her speech, alone and wakeful, to a phantom child pockmarked with plague or smallpox, before leaving the chapel to stagger towards the waiting witches. The implication that the witches are the widows and orphans of war was clear, and their watchful eyes trace Macbeth even during the battle scenes. Although they do not appear again at the film’s end, Fleance re-emerges from his time with them to take up Macbeth’s sword from the battlefield and run toward a future conflict with Malcolm, perpetuating the cycle of violence.

With humour utterly absent from the film, releases of energy have to be found in other ways. In the most misjudged scene, Lady Macbeth persuades Macbeth to the murder in a chapel and halfway through initiates sex. She continues mundanely running through the dos and don’ts or the murder while he fixates on thrusting intensely; the moment has no chemistry and seems to me to be occasioned by the directors’ reluctance to explore the potential of acting to demonstrate Lady Macbeth’s influence at this point; as sexposition, it’s crude and unconvincing, sex-as-power stranded as an isolated device. Later, as king, Macbeth returns the gesture by beginning to force himself on an unsettled Lady Macbeth, and her disconcerted withdrawal from him stands for the entire breakdown of their relationship. Cotillard acquits herself well as the pristine, stoic wife that the film demands, but the film seems unsure of what quite to do with her apart from reacting near-silently to her husband.

Other moments are more successful. Macbeth is led to Duncan’s tent not by a floating dagger (the supernatural is diminished significantly in this film) but by a young soldier who he earlier saw die on the battlefield who walks before him. The murder itself is harrowing – Duncan has time to awake and realise what is happening before Macbeth plunges his knife into him again and again, the act itself intercut with his reactions from moments later. Macbeth then collapses, exhausted, onto the bed beside his victim, and is there to meet Malcolm, who enters moments later. The threat that Macbeth offers to Malcolm, running his dagger along his face, prompts him to flee, offering a powerful compression of events that makes a virtue of Macbeth’s stoicism. After the discovery of Duncan’s body, Macduff cries out while Macbeth refuses to even feign surprise, and he instead simply slashes the throats of the (still-living at this point) guards. The moments of ultra-violence point to Macbeth’s trauma, and provide much-needed releases of his severely repressed energy. This emerges more as king, wrapped in robes and squatting on the floor of his austere bedchamber. Here, preparing for war, he jogs around his bed, swings his sword, sits in anxious containment deprived of his natural habitat. The comfort he demonstrates when returning to the battlefield is telling.

Fassbender is most interesting when unsettled. The banquet scene is blocked formally, the Macbeths flanked by bearded bishops and hosting rows of nobles and religious types. When the murderers enter and take their seats, Macbeth keeps the entire assemblage standing as he goes to ask them – apparently in full hearing of the silent room – how their expedition went. The choice is somewhat surreal, but provides an effective shorthand for Macbeth’s open tyranny. The public departure of the Macduffs from the banquet foreshadows their subsequent stories, but also gives Cotillard a rare opportunity to shine as she manages the petrified assembly while Macbeth stares on the silent and unmoving Banquo (Paddy Considine, winning by a mile the Best Facial Hair competition, while challenging Fassbender for the least physical movement possible in a major role). Lady Macbeth’s abrupt embarrassment and dismissal of the silent nobles is dreamlike, the bodies moving away from her while Macbeth stands crumped before her.

The most Thrones-like moment is as Lady Macduff and her children are burned on stakes on the hills outside Dunsinane, Lady Macbeth looking on aghast while Macbeth glares coldly, before announcing to his surrounding subjects that this is what awaits traitors. The image, one of the film’s most visually beautiful while also traumatic, is revisited during the advance of Birnam Wood, which is torched in a huge conflagration, its embers blowing into Macbeth’s face. Macduff (Sean Harris) stands silhouetted before the flames and, while Macbeth does get to dispatch a couple of anonymous soldiers, the entire battle is set up as a one-on-one battle framed against roaring flames. The fight goes on for far too long, with both men slashing big chunks out of one another and Macduff’s nose being convincingly (if rather distractingly) broken. Faced with the arrival of the English army on horseback, Macbeth yields to Macduff’s final blow, inviting his end, and he is left slumped, kneeling, on the floor with Macduff lying next to him as the horses ride past them, leaving Macbeth’s body ignored on the battlefield.

Some have already said that this film won’t be a great teaching resource for the play because of its violence (which is, indeed, sporadically visceral). I suspect that it’s also not useful for this purpose because it is, regrettably, quite boring. The ponderous pace, the monotonous aural quality and the narrow focus make this even soporific (although I confess I watched this as a Sunday matinee, always a sleepy time), and it’s quite a feat to cut Shakespeare’s shortest and fastest tragedy so dramatically and still make a film so long and slow. The sheer sameness of the speaking, further, loses the musicality and variety that might appeal to those interested in the play’s language. Yet I also think this is a superb technical achievement. As a still portrait of a traumatised Macbeth, a beautifully composed positioning of lost individuals against an austere and stunning landscape, a series of emotive images of the horrors of war, and as a masterclass in acting restraint, Kurzel’s film succeeds. It thoroughly deserves to be seen on an enormous screen, and its harrowed/harrowing tone resound long after the closing credits.

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