Not a moment too soon.
If ever there was a time for Shakespeare’s goriest and most presciently admonitory play to return, this is it. We could use its warning about the obliterating powers of world-eating ambition pushed into our unheeding faces.
Self-serving, mean-hearted, psychopathic presidential hopefuls, I’m talking to you.
Macbeth is back in its fiercest iteration (and that is saying something given some of its predecessors) thanks to Michael Fassbender’s coruscating performance in the title role. True to the play’s recurring theme of paradox—“Two truths are told”; “cannot be ill, cannot be good”; “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”; “When the battle’s lost and won”; “Nothing is / But what is not”—he plays the murderous Scot as two things at once: savage and battling with regret. He nails it, right between the eyes.
Macbeth needed the coming of cinema for its fullest realization as conceived by the playwright: Only film can properly manufacture the augurs melting into air, the ghosts that are manifestations of interior guilt and external acts both. Not to mention natural-looking blood, which in director Justin Kurzel’s balletic treatment spews, flies, viscously drips. The Isle of Skye scenery is cold and vaporous. Color correction plays an increasingly critical role in modern filmmaking, rarely bigger than here. The palette varies from distancing gray to an equally distant (curious so) fire orange, in scenes of candlelit interiors and reflected bloodshed and the somewhat inscrutable decision to render the pivotal occurrence of Birnan Wood coming to Dunsinane in the form of forest-fire smoke.
Then again, it mirrors the particularly heinous way Kurzel’s screenwriters choose to have Macbeth dispatch Macduff’s family, “all my chickens and their dam / In one fell swoop.” This Macbeth conquers fear (another of the play’s major subjects) by becoming supremely fearsome.
Cinema, too, could only deliver one of the most chilling points this adaptation makes: boys. This war was fought by children. Just as wars throughout history have been and continue to be. The camera lingers on the innocent faces, alive and in a moment to be dead, of those comprising the army whose blood will arc through the air so poetically in slow motion. We are meant to understand clearly they are just boys.
Boys who go to make and meet death with weapons that have been lovingly strapped onto their bodies.
And then the musical score sounds with an undeniable echo of the high-low siren, dreaded song of modern-day disaster.
You need nothing more overt to connect these dots. Shakespeare is already, and always, contemporaneous. By making a bloody allegory out of the bones of a king’s ascent in 1050, Shakespeare foretold the rise of every tyrant since he wrote the play in 1606, the year after the Gunpowder Plot. Its warning about the dangers of personal ambition in statecraft is every bit as valid today, when people in astonishing numbers are getting blown apart in service of their leaders’ often misguided beliefs (minds “filled with scorpions” most probably).
That’s Shakespeare for you: elastically adaptable to every age. His clay is elemental circumstance and primal human psychology, and those never change. The cinema’s greatest directors were naturally attracted to the ultimate tale of portentous violence: Welles, Polanski, Kurosawa (and one relative unknown, Billy Morrissette, whose 2001 Scotland, Pa. transfers the action to seventies America and the reign over Scotland to pre-eminence in the drive-thru burger trade; it’s near brilliant in its translation of dark tragedy to dark but humorous period piece).
Someday in the future the 2015 Macbeth may bother viewers with the dated look of today’s visual bag of tricks: bullet-time slowmo and hypersped shots; an unavoidable resemblance to combat video games. It looks so much of our time it looks “real,” much as Polanski’s version did to audiences in 1971—though the hairstyles now scream Bee Gees, and the latest in special effects that permitted the “dagger of the mind” to hover just out of actor Jon Finch’s grasp might prompt a laugh today. The YouTube user who posted a clip of the climactic fight scene aptly sums up the movie’s effect today: “raw. real. hilarious.” It is raw and real because Polanski knew pitiless, knew vicious; this was the film he chose to shoot after the Manson Family’s murder of his pregnant wife among others. Brute opportunism and unalloyed horror are almost the entire plot.
It is harder to know precisely which aspects of the multivalent play Orson Welles intended to tease out in 1948, except to show the world that Shakespeare could be immediate, popular, and filmed under budget, unlike most of Welles’s extravagantly creative visions. His love for the timeless poetry appears paramount, while the mise-en-scène—appropriately foreboding, lush with foggy vistas and charcoal tonalities—is the equally beloved mistress. Alas, the actors’ attempts at a Scots burr form a near-insurmountable barrier to the experience: Most of the time you wonder why they’re trying to get the right Ukrainian accent. Jeanette Nolan crushes the subtleties of Lady Macbeth’s psyche with her bare hands. Then there are the pasteboard crowns (provided by cheapskate Republic Pictures). Not Welles’s fault, but once Burger King comes to mind, he’s hard to forget again.
The one cinematic Macbeth that may never age is Throne of Blood, Akira Kurosawa’s magisterial transposition of the play to feudal Japan. At once spare and richly metaphoric, it is a towering example of film’s ability to manifest the world of the mind. Or rather, Kurosawa’s ability to do so, in part through the exquisite device of Toshiro Mifune’s genius. He does not act; he embodies. The desolate landscape (the slopes of Mt. Fuji) is one with the desolating acts of the increasingly unhinged self-appointed executioner.
His death at the end is an appropriately gory, and singular, one. In fact, the choice of a Macbeth’s final dismissal is one of the most telling acts of directorial interpretation. The good old swordfight, followed by beheading, is true to the letter. But the particular spirit may find better deaths in store. One of the most powerful Macbeths I ever saw was acted by students under a local director of uncommon talent. In his staging, the monster-king was not run through by Macduff’s vengeful sword. His skull was bashed in with his own shield. Every blow sent a shock through the seats. Exposed, unafforded even a shred of protective glory from the duel’s pretty minuet, the audience was made to face pure savagery.
Kurzel’s Macbeth likewise has the insistence of a rawness that yet remains subtle. You can’t look away, and you don’t want to: The film’s beauty is its ugliness and vice versa, true to the source’s infinite paradox. The play leaves room to insert motives only hinted at in the original. In this case the screenwriters have marked bolder outlines around the Macbeths’ childlessness: both their grief at the death of their son, and the loss of a royal heir, are the buried cause of their cruelty. There is also the suggestion that Lady Macbeth sexually intoxicates her husband: She coldly incites him to murder and become “so much more the man” while in flagrante delicto; the man he is, is not good enough for her.
Whispered even more softly is the intimation that only murder will get her off. As it is, she is wholly unmoved by her husband’s embrace.
Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth—like those before her—is likely to be a divisive subject. The character is a divisive subject: a woman who begs to become a woman no more, so she will feel no remorse from acts of “direst cruelty,” is not comprehensible. Only with the explanation given her emotions in Kurzel’s rendering can they become understandable. The British press (the film has been released there already) has hailed Cotillard as practically perfect. Certainly, there is a vacuity in her eyes. Neither her ruthlessness nor her repentence is entirely convincing, because she seems not entirely natural.
On second thought, that does make her the perfect Lady Macbeth.
But it is Fassbender’s unyielding performance that drives this Macbeth. His is an internal combustion acting method. There is continual detonation going on somewhere below, while what shows on the surface is the strength of its containment. Despite his widely praised depiction of Steve Jobs in the recent biopic, his casting is ironically credited in part with the movie’s box-office failure. Variety reported he “lacks the drawing power to open the picture.” If there is justice in the unlikely world where Shakespeare becomes a blockbuster, this movie should change that. His draw will become electromagnetic.
In Fassbender’s Macbeth the conflict between suspicion and ambition first unmakes him, then forges him a mighty armor against human feeling. It happens to the warrior who is called upon to commit murder in the name of country or clan, as if that could cleanse the act. For a human, it never can: We were given no separate place in our hearts for brutality that is just and brutality that is not. There is only deadening, and the injurious aftermath in the mind that may never get quite right thereafter.
Shakespeare’s knowing works fit every era because the one act in which we never fail is repeating our mistakes. A reprise of this 400-year-old tragedy will always contain a timely caution. At this moment, for an America acceleratingly suspicious of the Other, perceived as coming to take what is rightly ours, where the ambitious usurper waits to step into the moral void created by fear, it is this: We will have a tyrant to lead us, all right. I don’t think I’m reading this wrong. If I am, then we will be spared our role as Ross, who must cry of his burdened land, “Alas, poor country!”