Macbeth: The Scottish Film

October 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

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At last, perhaps for the first time south of the border, the Scottish play becomes Scottish (those who have seen much more Shakespeare than I have may want to dispute that). None of the lead actors in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a Scot, though Michael Fassbender has the proximity of Irishness, but here are convincing Scots accents with no hint of the RADA tones that afflict so much Shakespeare. Nor is the declamatory style in evidence, which is a relief.

Some reviewers have complained that the poetry is thereby lost; instead, beyond the whispering and occasional mumbling, it’s the eyes and the body that speak most eloquently. This is decidedly a film, not a staging or the filming of a staging. The words matter but they are given filmic substance in the close-up and its intimacies, the gesture and its weight. The dialogue is naturalistic, while the constant play of looks between characters lends it an expressionistic intensity further heightened in the action scenes.

Is it an action film, as some critics have suggested? Only in the sense that the epic action Shakespeare’s text only reports is made visual. It begins on a fiery red battlefield that turns monochrome as the camera takes us into the thick of the fighting, whose raw ferocity would be sickening but for the almost balletic slow-motion, while the Samurai-style leather armour and the Japanese-influenced soundtrack hint at Kurosawa and his version of the play, Throne of Blood. The bloodshed is a sorry business, unrelished by the warriors, its losses mourned, and, crucially, Macbeth stands in its midst when he first sees the witches, so that haunting begins already conjured by the trauma of battle.

These witches are accompanied by a girl child and one of them holds a babe in arms. There’s no cackling, no gleeful recital of evil deeds done or planned, just an implacable trio of women moved by angry sorrow. They could be the broken-hearted newly dead or the embodied spirit of those bereaved and displaced by the civil war that ravages the land. They are guilt or grief, and maybe wishful thinking, made manifest in superstition. Likewise, Lady Macbeth’s invocation of “you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts” to fill her “full of direst cruelty…” has a quietness closer to self-urging than to the calling up of external powers.

The film is persuasively grounded in the pre-feudal Scotland of the 11th century, Christian but with strong Norse connections and persisting pagan rituals, so it’s perhaps natural that supernatural forces should have less to do with any Christian doctrine of good and evil than with paganism. From the start, with the funeral of the Macbeths’ dead child, a simple but beautiful and affecting scene, there prevails a sense of this land’s remote separateness through geography and custom.

Marion Cotillard’s performance as Lady Macbeth is muted throughout, in clear contrast with the forceful male presences that surround her – a choice the director has acknowledged as his. An almost sculpted figure when we first see her, she represents stillness and what could be the numbness of grief. Her character’s transition from ambitious incitement to introverted madness well conveys a despairing awareness of the wrongs she has precipitated, though I had an impression of this fine actress’s potential being narrowed. Fassbender’s, on the other hand, is given full rein to be a powerful and driven Macbeth. Paddy Considine makes a solid, thinking Banquo. Landscape (mainly Skye and the Northumberland coast) is used to telling effect for its sombre splendour and its harshness, creating a strong physical world.

The film has its flaws. The scene after Duncan’s murder, where Fassbender rises from beneath the lake water that has cleansed him of blood and remorse, muscled torso brazenly bared in the morning light, has all the ridiculousness of a TV ad for male perfume. And there could certainly have been less mumbling. But attempts at translating Shakespeare to film have rarely been successful, and none of the best have been by British directors (I have in mind the work of Welles, Kurosawa and the Russian Kozintsev). The first challenge is to make a work that is visually alive while being matched to the text, though not necessarily in completeness.

When I saw Macbeth last Sunday evening the cinema was packed, its audience for the most part young, many probably studying the play at school or university. No restlessness, no fiddling with mobiles intruded on our concentration; they, like me, were gripped. I’ve yet to watch Welles’ 1948 version, but this is the most compelling Macbeth I’ve seen on screen so far.

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§ One Response to Macbeth: The Scottish Film

  • Sandy Laird says:

    The witches in Macbeth are central to the whole direction of the play and as such are certainly “lead actors”. They were certainly Scottish. It was a surprise to hear them for the first time in my native tongue! It was disappointing that they were under-represented in this telling of the story. The tragedy of Macbeth the man depends upon his relationship with the weird sisters

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