Macbeth has been filmed many times with varying degrees of success. Indeed, the story is so familiar there’s no point at all in describing what actually happens, since it is indelibly imprinted upon most people’s consciousness. Yet every single film made thus far has overlooked a really important opportunity. Macbeth and his wife need to be teenagers. Only the overbearing hubris of youth and rampant ambition can ever fully explain their actions. Of course, when you’re in the business of financing a movie, the simple truth is that you need names that will put bums on seats, so the chances are we’ll never get to see such an interpretation on the big screen. Which is a shame.
Here, Michael Fassbender gives us a grimy, muscular Macbeth, while the usually dependable Marion Cotillard struggles somewhat with her Scottish accent as his scheming wife. If you’re going to film this play, you really need to have something different up your sleeve and apart from a few neat flourishes, director Justin Kurzel doesn’t have an awful lot to offer us. He opens with the funeral of the Macbeths’ young son (something alluded to in the text but not, to my knowledge, ever shown before) and then he gives us a big slow motion battle, set against some bleak highland scenery. The witches are nicely restrained (some of their most famous lines summarily dispensed with) and from there, matters proceed at a funereal pace, with Fassbender and Cottilard reciting their lines whilst gazing into the middle distance, like actors in an Ingmar Bergman film.
It isn’t terrible, you understand, but the leaden quality rather neuters this most virile of Shakespeare’s plays, making you long to push on to the next action sequence, rather than relishing those wonderful words. There’s also a terrible misstep when Macbeth appears to discuss the assassination of Banquo (Paddy Considine) as the entire court listens in. It must have been Kurzel’s intention to do it this way, but it looks, frankly, risible.
The closing sections, in which the avenging forces set fire to, rather than transport the woods of Dunsinane, finally allow a touch of awe into the proceedings and the confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff (Sean Harris) is visceral enough to ensure this probably won’t be suitable to show in schools. There’s also a nice twist at the end involving the King’s sword – but by this time, it’s a little too late to salvage proceedings.
Advance reviews for this had led me to expect something extraordinary, but overall this felt like just another version of a tried and tested story. Decent but not a game changer.