*. Two things struck me as significant, or at least out of the ordinary, before I even started watching this production of Macbeth.
*. In the first place, it’s a full three hours. Macbeth is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and even a full-text version (which I think this is quite close to, though some parts are rearranged) plays pretty fast. I have no objection to the pacing here, but it is a movie that doesn’t feel in a rush. That’s something that I usually enjoy when it comes to Shakespeare.
*. The second surprising thing is that we have an older Macbeth. In fact I believe Patrick Stewart was 70 years old. Of course he looks quite a bit younger, indeed he’s remarkably buff in a tank top at the end, but he’s still not a young man. I think it’s more usual to cast Macbeth as being younger. This is something Roman Polanski deliberately went for in his Macbeth, casting Jon Finch in the title role (Finch was 29). This was apparently because Polanski thought younger leads would appeal to a youth audience in the 1960s, but I think it also fits with the idea of Macbeth as being an ambitious man on the rise.
*. Here though I thought an older Macbeth also worked very well. The idea was to make Scotland over into a Cold War Soviet-style state, with a Macbeth modeled after Romania’s Ceaușescu, and Stewart has the look of an old-school apparatchik who has put his time in and now wants the limos and the dacha.
*. The setting — the film was shot at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire but it looks like it takes place in a fallout bunker — also underlines the joyless elite squalor of the Soviet. One feels anew the play’s theme of the pointlessness of political ambition. Macbeth has to wade into a sea of blood to achieve . . . what? He’s not even going to get a corner office with a view.
*. I like this slant, and think the movie looks good. It’s a bit like Ian McKellen’s Richard III (1995) and Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus (2011) in its evocation of a militaristic/fascistic dystopia. But as always when updating Shakespeare, contemporary relevance and impact has to be measured against elements that no longer make a lot of sense. I was wondering how Birnam Wood was going to come to Dunsinane here and was surprised at how well the soldiers in forest camo (“leafy screens”) worked. On the other hand, the supernatural stuff, like the witches and Banquo’s ghost, were a let-down.
*. The witches struck me as particularly off. They’re certainly striking, mainly appearing as masked nurse/nun figures, and their chanting is presented like it’s the music video of a girl goth band rapping. But they’re so modish they don’t register as being threatening. Given the décor of the bunker I couldn’t help thinking how much fun it would have been to have cast Tobin Bell and Robert Englund in the parts. Jigsaw and Freddy look like they belong in this setting. Throw in some reject from a Rob Zombie movie and you’d have a good trio.
*. Stewart is solid, as you’d expect, though a bit loud and hoarse. Kate Fleetwood seems to be channeling Siân Phillips’s Livia from I, Claudius, and doing a pretty good job of it. She actually looks witchier than the witches in the first few acts. Director Rupert Goold (whose stage adaptation this originally was) sticks pretty close to his theatrical roots. The various rooms all have a stage-like quality to them.
*. I thought I was going to dislike this one after the opening scene. The wounded soldier is a bloody mess, which is fine, but he takes to an extreme the sort of naturalistic delivery that will be used throughout, which I’m really not a fan of. Growling, snarling, or sobbing the lines trashes any sense of rhythm they might have. There is no music to this play at all. As noted, even the witches sound like people spitting into an open mic on poetry night.
*. Once you get used to it though this turns out to be a fair production. I actually liked the setting, though the film as a whole had a bit too much of a stagey feel to it. Goold loves a direct camera placement with actors facing us square on, with the Porter breaking the fourth wall being particularly disconcerting. That’s not the way you play a scene like that in a movie. There were times I really wanted Goold to get the camera moving through some of these dingy, flickering hallways, especially as the action picked up. What we have instead is a movie that feels static, though not without impact.