‘Macbeth’ is Mac-nificent

by Warren Cantrell on March 2, 2016

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Solid Rock Fist Up]

“Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

-‘Macbeth’ – V, v, 2

Macbeth, streaming now on Amazon Prime, is a film and play with a reputation so frightful that some believe to even utter its name is to taunt fate, and invite terrible misfortune. A few notable cases of bad luck have indeed fallen upon the heads of those who have tried to stage productions of “The Scottish Play,” yet what most right-minded Shakespeare enthusiasts will tell you is that it has nothing to do with a mystic curse, and everything to do with the fact that Macbeth isn’t among the playwright’s best works.

It is a story of treachery, wrapped in a cautionary tale about ambition, served up on a plate of relentless violence with characters that range from neutral to eye-poppingly evil. And yet somehow director Justin Kurzel has managed to craft a film adaptation of Macbeth that is simultaneously beautiful, terrifying, and gripping, and elevates the source material to unprecedented heights.

One of Shakespeare’s shortest plays, Kurzel’s Macbeth pads out its story by opening with a flashback of Lord (Michael Fassbender) and Lady (Marion Cotillard) Macbeth presiding over the funeral of their recently deceased infant. It then cuts to the battle which is only referred to in the original play, yet is shown in beautiful slow motion capture in the film. The audience learns that Lord Macbeth is fighting for Scottish King Duncan (David Thewlis), who is defending his realm against foreign usurpers. After his battlefield victory, Macbeth encounters three witches who prophesize that the victorious commander will soon receive another lordship title, and will eventually be king himself. Although he thinks little of the random fortune telling at first, when King Duncan later names him Thane of Cawdor (fulfilling the first prophecy), Macbeth’s interest is piqued.

Yet it is his wife, Lady Macbeth, who drives events forward, and practically dares her husband to kill the king lest his manhood come into question. The new Thane of Cawdor submits to his wife’s prodding, and murders Duncan, whereupon he becomes King Macbeth. Yet this is all set-up, for the traditional thrust of the play/film is how ambition can bring out the worst in humanity: how good intentions can lead to evil ends. By opening the film with the baby funeral and the battle scene, Kurzel pulls off a magnificent trick, for the director provides meaningful backstory to events featured in the play while simultaneously providing grounded reasoning for the Macbeths and their future (bad) decisions.

For Lady Macbeth, the loss of her young child could have easily put her in an unstable condition where life seemed cheapened, and death (either for her or those around her) might have appeared to be a welcome release from the burdens of continued existence. For Lord Macbeth, the horrors of the battlefield, as glimpsed by the audience in the opening minutes, seem to have rattled the man, and haunt him throughout the picture. In this way, the king’s murder is less of a random event, and more a symptom of madness by two people that have let tragedy and trauma catch up to them.

This added backstory and psychological depth strengthens a picture whose stage-source has had to rely on naked ambition and gender peer pressure. What’s more, it makes Lord and Lady Macbeth’s spiral into full-blown insanity much more comprehensible, and adds another layer of depth to the larger psychological issues at play. The motives are still rooted in naked ambition, yet find new, fertile soil to expand into via nihilistic notions of life’s ultimate futility in the face of loss and suffering. As the movie progresses, and the Macbeths take turns out-crazy-ing each other, events transpire in an entirely plausible fashion: bolstered in no small part by this added character development and the stellar performances of Fassbender and Cotillard.

Visually, Macbeth is a sumptuous feast, as the costumes, production design, makeup, and most strikingly, the cinematography make each frame a veritable celebration of film as an artistic medium. At the risk of being redundant, this is something that simply cannot be overstated: Macbeth is an absolutely gorgeous film. For a non-Hollywood film with a budget under $20 million, this movie does not seem to want for anything in terms of its production, and has just as much flash and sizzle as pictures with five, or even ten times its budget.

To be fair, the admittedly thick Scottish brogue of the dialogue combined with Shakespeare’s writing makes for a few tricky scenes, and the violence of this production won’t do the squeamish any favors. Yet if one can get past these two hurdles, a rich celebration of one of Shakespeare’s darkest tales awaits. In Kurzel’s hands, Macbeth isn’t just a tragic tale of ambition turned sour, but an exploration of human existence as viewed through the eyes of two people who feel like they have nothing to lose, and live in a world that is but, “a walking shadow… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It’s a dark theme, yet as mentioned before, no one ever accused this particular Shakespeare play of being especially cheery.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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