Heavy Lies The Crown: 'Macbeth' (2016) Review
There’s no doubt that some works of fiction – in particular among the great Bard’s – have become so renowned, so widespread, that their influence and creative stylings can be found in even the most unlikely of places. From the typical forbidden lovers of Romeo and Juliet, the jealous relative craving power from Hamlet, or the dramatic betrayal and scheming found in Julius Caesar, it is common to overlook these influences when watching, reading, or in anyway consuming new fiction. These plot points, characters, motifs, and themes have become so ubiquitous that they are seen as templates for stories rather than an homage to one of the greatest storytellers who ever lived. From The Lion King to the story of Prince Caspian, the Bard’s tales have sown themselves into the very fundamentals of storytelling itself.
Like many of his plays, there have been countless attempts at retelling the story of Macbeth in pen, on the stage, and on the silver screen. Several have stood out for their faithful recount of the play (such as The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 adaptation), and others for incorporating their unique creative stylings into the play (Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood for example). Such is the landscape of Shakespearean cinema; there have been countless remakes, adaptions and “loosely based ons” that to even consider creating another adaptation of one’s own vision would be a daunting task unto itself.
I for one, am ecstatic that relatively unknown, but accomplished director Justin Kurzel undertook this task and created one of the best adaptions of Macbeth I’ve ever seen. For the unacquainted, Macbeth tells the story of a Thane (essentially an Earl) and general in the Scottish Army, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender). Set in the Scottish middle-ages, the play recounts Macbeth’s ambitious and deadly rise to power. Aided in his selfish pursuits by his cunning wife, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), the play is perhaps the most definitive example of ambition, power, corruption and the paranoia that comes with being a ruler in fiction.
As someone who, like many of you, had to sit through reading Shakespeare plays in high-school English class, it’s fascinating to see how different a play can seem on-screen, on the stage and outside a book. Some lines that felt silly or out of place fit naturally and add incredible expression to a scene. Reading a play does not let you digest its themes or the character’s struggles as fully as the late Bard intended. To put yourself in the shoes of these characters and feel how they feel, it is essential you see them act. However, while like many others I believe having to sit down and read a play seems very silly, I appreciate the exposure that High-School gave me to this ancient but essential world of fiction.
As has been said, there is nothing that makes a Shakespeare play more a Shakespeare play than the capabilities of its actors. As with many of his plays, Macbeth demands a broad range of emotions to be expressed in the smallest window of time. They require the actors to emote in a variety of settings and circumstances that can change wildly from the start of the play to the end. With the advantages of film, the audience is allowed to peer into the closest of corners and, at times, be forced to find the emotion of an actor in naught but their eyes. Thankfully, Macbeth is the kind of film where you don’t know if the players are exceptional or if they’re all only trying to outdo one another through sheer application of skill. Fassbender’s Macbeth is a simple man at first glance. A soldier trying to do his duty, but when given a prophetic vision by supernatural witches, the conflict departs the battlefield and shifts to his mind instead. Loved by his King (David Thewlis) his friends and kinsmen, Macbeth’s noble demeanor and loyal disposition come under attack when introduced to the possibility of power. Soon he is crowned Thane of Cawdor, in addition to already being Thane of Glamis. Driven by the witches’ prophecy, he fights his urges to pursue the crown but cannot escape its allure. Fassbender’s emotional turmoil and indecision are only bolstered by his later fall into madness.
As he is crowned King of all Scotland, Macbeth senses deceit and uprising at every corner. One of the harder to imagine events in the play is a great feast after Macbeth’s coronation. Before everyone eats, Macbeth sees the ghostly specter of his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) quietly chastising his selfish desires. Macbeth begins to shout at the ghost, cursing it and asking why it has come to haunt him. In front of a large hall filled with nobility and the audience, Macbeth openly reveals the conflicts of his soul. In a scene that should only be described as awkward, Fassbender makes it both unbearably hard to watch and also incredibly enthralling. In his paranoia and silent nursing of his fears, Macbeth does away with any dregs of faith his followers may have had left in him and instead replaces that faith with involuntary servitude to the crown.
However, if Macbeth is the soldier turned King, Lady Macbeth is the faithful wife become cunning co-conspirator. Portrayed by the always exceptional Marion Cotillard, Lady Macbeth is the creative inspiration for all conniving and ambitious ladies in fiction (think Claire Underwood from House of Cards). Reading the play, it’s hard to get a feel for exactly how much Lady Macbeth is behind Macbeth’s rise to power. She certainly encourages him to go through with his desires for the crown, but later in the play, it seems as though she all but disappears until the very end. On stage or screen, however, she plays a much bigger role. Lady Macbeth’s encouragements do not end with Macbeth’s coronation. She is constantly the level-headed partner trying to reign in her husband’s neurotic fears, trying to keep the power they so difficulty won. As the schemer, her signature Cotillard charm does not fail to captivate.
However, her real moments of brilliance come not as the architect of Macbeth’s power but rather during her own spiral into madness. Lady Macbeth’s grounding personality was to be the Ying to Macbeth’s paranoid Yang. But, as her husband’s madness grows stronger, the guilt of her part in Macbeth’s actions comes back to haunt her. A long, no-cut, shot of simply Cotillard’s face is perhaps one of the most powerful scenes in the film as she discusses her guilt and role in the murder of King Duncan. And when all is said, the camera cuts to a vision of her recently dead child sitting across from her with unknowing, curious blue eyes.
While even actors with the smallest of roles play them exceptionally well, if there were to be one reason to watch this film it would be the cinematography. While it’s not done by The Revenant’s Emmanuel Lubezki, it is certainly one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever seen. To have a taste, simply watch the trailer.
The gorgeous reds and oranges in the final battle are complimented by the earlier shots of brown and green rocky paths. Those almost statically still standing ensembles of nobility with Thewlis in front evoke a sense of loneliness and silence. Though many may have words to say on the film’s reliance on slow motion, it Is, in all honesty, one of the best uses in recent memory. A silent Macbeth looking on at the silhouettes of three witches while a battle rages behind him creates such a palpable bubble of beauty that one unwittingly holds their breath, only to exhale when the swords come swinging back down. The minimalist cinematic style is difficult to describe but is present in those scenes that center around a single shade of color. Black in the opening funeral, red in the raging fight between Macbeth and Macduff and gray during the castle scenes. The set pieces mesh so fluidly that there is an always present urge to pause the film and hang the single frame like a painting on the wall. The gorgeous colors and worn, lived-in mountainous Scottish setting are complemented by the simple but unique costume design. The focus on wood and dull colors in the clothing make medieval Scotland look like a poorer, more basic kind of Kingdom than one that is typically shown in Hollywood
Still relatively unknown and criminally overlooked (oddly enough considering it was distributed by The Weinstein Company), Kurzel’s Macbeth is an exquisite homage to one of the Bard’s most legendary plays. With a haunting loneliness that begets quiet fear, it is beautifully rendered by one of Hollywood’s best up and coming directors. Featuring the artistic stylings of many industry giants, Macbeth is unnaturally eerie and chaotic, but also polished to a striking on-screen sheen. Flowing through a series of violent events like a boat in a storm that arrives at its destination in one piece with a tale to tell children for generations. Utilizing beautiful locations and gorgeous colors and costumes, the film is worth a watch for any fan of drama, film or Shakespeare.