How do you go about adapting a Shakespeare play nowadays? Do you drag it into the modern day in plot and language terms (like 10 Things I Hate About You), or do you keep the language but modernise the plot (Romeo + Juliet)? Replacing the speech and keeping the original setting isn’t a popular option, so many filmmakers – in this case, director Justin Kurzel – decide to maintain the setting and speech. And the problem is, while his Macbeth is a moody, attractive-looking drama filled with excellent actors, the language (and the “Scottish” accents) make a meal of the prose. Add to this the plodding structure, and Macbeth is a sort-of-good, if slightly pretentious, adaptation.
If you don’t know the plot, Scottish general Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) wins a war for King Duncan (David Thewlis), but receives a prophecy that he himself will be king from three witches. Bringing his wife (Marion Cottilard) into a plot to fulfil said prophecy, Macbeth descends deeper and deeper into his darker side and his doubts, while other forces mass against him. Screenwriters Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie have the unenviable job of taking Shakespeare’s play and trimming it for the cinema (imagine having that responsibility!).
Kurzel chose to film the adaptation in Scotland, and the bleak, wintry backdrops really root you in the story. The boggy marshes and snowy peaks are a great vista for the cast and crew to perform this epic play in front of, but that’s just it – the story is a play. It works well as a play (I’ve seen it), and yet as a film it feels like a trudge through the aforementioned marshes – sometimes you get a good sense of momentum, and grasp all that’s being said, but other times the film stops dead, and a meaty monologue becomes a strained experience, as you try to decipher what’s going on.
For most people who aren’t avid Shakespeare readers (I’m not, I just ended up studying the plays over and over), the film is a really hard slog. I found it incredibly difficult to understand some scenes, and otherwise excellent actors like Paddy Considine (as the doomed Banquo) really struggle to relay the prose and maintain accents. This is the largest flaw with the film, and the way it’s been marketed – four people left my screening, and it’s clear many expect something less adherent to the play. It’s gory, which is good given the context (could you do a PG Macbeth?), and at times it’s quite beautiful, but you really do get a sense that this was always going to be a more “arty” movie than a crowd-pleaser.
Fassbender is excellent (as he always seems to be), his Macbeth a battle-hardy bastard metamorphising into a paranoid, tyrannical wreck. Without his performance, the film would really struggle, and he’s one of the best actors about – expect to see him nominated for awards. He also manages to maintain a Scottish accent where all others fail, which if you’ve seen X-Men: First Class, is a welcome career progression. As for Lady Macbeth, Cotillard is very good in fits and stops as the scheming wife, but the writers’ adaptation and the actress’ choices give us a far more sympathetic accomplice to the grisly goings-on. Again, she seems to have mastered an (English) accent here, and her monologues are some of the film’s best, but at other times she seems to wilt into the background when you would expect Lady Macbeth to take charge.
Among the supporting cast are infamous Method actor Sean Harris as MacDuff; the previously-mentioned Considine as Banquo; and American-Irish actor Jack Reynor as Malcolm, son and heir to Thewlis’ Duncan. Harris finally gets a role, I think, where he shows he’s not all menace and fear, and I quite liked that he seemed to have been cast deliberately as a hard man brought devastatingly to heel – his latter scenes are very good. Considine is lucky that he can provide so much with his face when his attempt at a Scots accent is so shaky, and he lends a wounded resignation to a famous character.
Reynor and Thewlis meanwhile do the best with what time they have, the former a coward turned avenging hero, and the latter the wise and benevolent king (are there any in Shakespeare who aren’t doomed?). I also liked the creepiness of the (four) witches, played by Seylan Baxter, Lynn Kennedy, Kayla Fallon and Amber Rissmann, with their enigmatic appearances and mysteriously-scarred faces adding a sense of eeriness. Musically, composer Jed Kurzel brings an authentic Celtic feel to the film, without resorting to bagpipes once (!), and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw almost seems to exclusively use natural sunlight or fire to light the scenes, giving everything a more gritty, dirty and peasant-like feel.
I really wanted to enjoy this film – it is a brilliant Shakespeare adaptation, no doubt. But it became so hard to follow at points (even knowing the plot and the main events), that I ended up finding it just good. It also puts forward an important point: is it best to leave Shakespeare’s greatest plays alone and adapt them faithfully, or should you revise and modernise them for today’s audiences? And is there a fair compromise to be found between the two? People should be exposed to Shakespeare for what he’s given our culture – but on a level they’re comfortable with.