New film adaptation makes for raw, gut-wrenching fare, but you don't want to look away
When it comes to Shakespeare’s plays, some people remain convinced that the only way to make that great archivist of the human condition come alive for modern audiences is to transplant his stories in a modern setting or rewrite his language in modern style. But Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays chooses the wiser path: letting the genius of Shakespeare stand on its own two feet.
Kurzel does leave his creative mark on Macbeth, opting for a sparser script (with a few memorable lines, like “Double, double toil and trouble” not making the cut) and adding new elements around Macbeth and Banquo’s sons at the bookends of the film. The cinematography is also more daring, especially the opening war scene split between elegant, slow-motion frames evocative of a still-life painting and total bone-crushing chaos.
But the gritty, foggy, bloody world of Macbeth takes its place among the great Shakespeare adaptations by never losing sight of the soul of the story.
Macbeth’s political ambitions are forged on that battlefield, where three witches present a mysterious prophecy about his coming kingship. But Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard — both impeccably cast as the Scottish general and his manipulative wife — show us a man and woman all too eager to receive the message and take their fate in their own hands. Expert subtleties in their performances — exhilarated gestures, thousand-yard stares, fortified kisses, an unexpected teardrop — emphasize that these two have total sovereignty over their quest for total sovereignty. For audiences used to reducing human action to a dozen psychological and social mechanisms, the thrusting dagger of Macbeth and the whispering lips of his wife behind him are a vivid return to that most basic fact of human life: that we are free to choose evil.
But the paradox of Macbeth is that this Machiavellian power grab constricts them. The more they exert their control by spilling blood, the more a rising river of guilt, paranoia, rage and isolation floods their minds and fills them “with scorpions.” Soon, a kind of suffocating atmosphere pins us down in our seats, even as the characters wander out into vast, open fields. “Out, damned spot,” Lady Macbeth pleads in her famous monologue. “Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
The smell won’t go away. Their primal sin haunts them at every step — as do crosses. From the battlefield, to the church walls, to the sign of the cross made on Macbeth’s forehead at his coronation — a motion which conjures memories of “the deed” — Kurzel uses the cross as a kind of horizon’s edge, one receding from Macbeth’s sight the deeper he goes.
There is a second story in Macbeth: not about what these two characters do, but about what they don’t do, or don’t want to do. The reality is not that Macbeth can’t repent; it’s that he refuses to. It’s not the witches’ prophecy that keeps him from abdicating the throne; it’s his desire to cling to it at all costs. And the most tragic notes come when sloughing off his moral and spiritual center for power culminates in total meaninglessness; when “out, damned spot” ends in “out, brief candle!” Macbeth not only loses his moral integrity, or the integrity of his mind; the integrity of the whole universe falls away from him.
This makes for raw, gut-wrenching fare — not exactly a feel-good film to pack the theaters the week before Christmas. But the power of Macbeth still beckons us. These characters’ story is not only a timely warning about the unchecked political ambitions of our leaders; it also goes right to the heart of our own little quests for kingship or queendom. In a way, the timing is perfect.
Kurzel ends Macbeth with the suggestion that the king’s turmoil lives on. And as long as the world turns by its own logic, it does. This is why Shakespeare doesn’t ever need to be modernized: a story like Macbeth could never go out of style in the first place.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher and cultural commentator at AleteiaandWord on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish and Real Clear Religion.