There is a strong argument to be had that Macbeth is the best play ever written – better than Hamlet, better than King Lear. It’s leaner and cleaner than those plays, with a relentless narrative drive, exceptional characters and an absolute cracker of a plot. It’s a natural for big-screen adaptation, and there have been a bunch: Orson Welles made an excellent, claustrophobic, highly stylised Scottish-accent version in 1948, Roman Polanski made a supremely cinematic (and bloody) version in 1971, Australian Geoffrey Wright set his 2006 adaptation starring Sam Worthington among the criminal gangs of Melbourne, and there have been countless television and stage-captured versions as well.
Now Australian director Justin Kurzel, whose Snowtown I declared the Best Film of 2011, has taken a stab at it, setting his version in Scotland at the time the events are supposed to take place (around 1050 AD), with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the Macbeths. He’s currently shooting Assassin’s Creed with Fassbender and Cotillard, and Macbeth DOP Adam Arkapaw is there too, so obviously the collaborative spirit here is high.
The wind-blasted Scottish moors are quite obviously the perfect landscape for this cold-blooded story, and, in setting the story in its exact time and place, Kurzel exposes the severity of these characters’ lives, while also being able to obliquely comment upon our own expectations: Macbeth’s “castle” is a series of tents, Birnam Wood is hardly a rainforest, and god forbid we should expect the doctor to be up on the latest sound medical practice. This physical world is shot impeccably by Arkapaw, who is one of those cinema artists for whom the question of winning an Oscar is not “will he?” but simply “when will he?” He has a truly original and unique eye.
The production design by Fiona Crombie (who for some reason does not seem to have gone along with the gang onto Assassin’s Creed) is impeccable, complemented by Alice Felton’s authentic-seeming costumes and, in the battle scenes, the Scottish war makeup we remember so fondly from Braveheart. While these tents and leather garments, set on the moors like elements of a lonely outpost on a distant planet, may seem too contained to interest our eye for an entire feature film, they last the distance.
What becomes monotonous, unfortunately, is Kurzel’s and the cast’s huge decision to deliver almost all the dialogue in the whole movie in the same measured, quiet tones. Fassbender, Cotillard, Sean Harris (Macduff), Paddy Considine (Banquo), David Thewlis (Duncan) and Jack Reynor (Malcolm) all speak Shakepeare’s lines impeccably (and wait until you hear Cotillard’s excellent Scottish accent!) but, perhaps in striving for some sort of naturalism or authenticity, almost always extremely intimately. Perhaps a lot of theatre productions allow actors to shout too much, but the overriding choice here flattens the story out, keeping it tonally flatlined, and, at times – such as the discovery of Duncan’s body – actually seems to work against the spirit and meaning of the text. When Macbeth finally, just before the ultimate battle, yells out for Seyton to bring him his armour, his raised voice is as refreshing as a long cool glass of water.
There are sublime moments. The first battle scene is rip-roaringly brilliant, original and exciting, and sets up an expectation of high style and intensity that nothing in the rest of the movie lives up to (the second battle is so subdued as to be, frankly, a big disappointment). A no-dialogue, non-Shakespeare scene at the beginning sets up an aspect of the Macbeth’s emotional life that makes an awful lot of sense. The witches are well handled, the violence is cleverly portrayed, and an intriguingly edited mash-up of a couple of scenes immediately after Duncan’s death give Macbeth and Malcolm a scene, not in the original play, that, if not the perfect telling of the story, is certainly an interesting alternative way of presenting it.
There is plenty of precision, but at the expense of passion. We don’t need Shakespeare’s characters to be shouting all the time, god knows, but this is “a tale… of sound and fury”, and Kurzel’s decision to deny us that seems a little churlish. Shakespeare’s dialogue is verse – heightened language – and, in reducing it all to softly-spoken naturalism, one is, unavoidably, reducing it.