*. Battle scenes were a bit of a joke on the Elizabethan stage. At the beginning of Henry V the Chorus talks about how “this cockpit” (the theatre) can’t hold “the vasty fields of France,” and so imagination will have to fill in all the details. In a later speech he even admits how ridiculous the little bit of swordplay you’ll actually see is going to seem. Traditionally you only had a handful of players run on to the stage from different directions talking about what is going on, or engaging in single combat on a plane that seems eerily removed from the rest of the battlefield.
*. On film you could help the audience’s imaginary forces and do a really epic battle scene but it cost a lot of money, unless you had the entire Soviet army on call to play extras for a reconstruction of Borodino for War and Peace. But then came CGI and suddenly we were looking at armies with tens of thousands of orcs filling our screens, or the allies swarming onto the beach on D-Day, with limbs flying off in all different directions from swords or high explosives. Stunning stuff, but was it more “realistic”?
*. And so Macbeth kicks off here with the Battle of Ellon (what? where? when?), with our hardy Scots all made up like the boyos from Braveheart and clashing in a slow-motion melee. This isn’t your grandfather’s Shakespeare. Or even Kenneth Branagh’s (though they do seem to have trucked some mud in from his Agincourt).
*. I really didn’t like this movie, so I’ll try and be quick about the reasons why.
*. In the first place there’s the language. None of the actors seem to have any feel for it, and they rush through their lines without any concern for meter or rhythm. Without subtitles you’re going to be in trouble because Scottish accents are employed and most of the dialogue is delivered in hushed whispers or mumbles. I think the point might have been to make the language seem more “realistic” (again) but this pretty much defeats the whole purpose of doing Shakespeare in the first place. They might as well have just kept the plot and had someone re-write the dialogue. Shakespeare’s language isn’t realistic.
*. Not that director Justin Kurzel seems particularly interested in what the characters are saying. He’s more interested in matters of art direction. The actors are hamstrung through editing. There’s a tradition in filming Shakespeare to let the actors have their big moments in long takes unless there’s some necessity in mixing things up. Kurzel seems to think that no one has the attention span to listen to a speech of more than a couple of lines at a time without editing. To take just one example among many, Macbeth’s “What hands are here?” speech takes five lines of monologue and mangles them with a dozen cuts.
*. It’s hard to judge the actors given what’s done to them. Michael Fassbender was apparently told to play Macbeth as though he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which is yet another way of making Shakespeare more contemporary and realistic but is a lot less interesting than the character we have in the play. Marion Cotillard certainly looks the part, more like a Weird Sister than the witches we get here, but she’s undone in the same way. Though at least she does get the movie’s one long take.
*. Then there are the visual and dramatic clichés. Interiors are all candlelight. Exteriors are postcards. There’s more to cinematography than such prettiness or finding the most beautiful locations to use as backdrops. Especially when it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In ye olde dayes they didn’t use candles that much. They were expensive and a terrible fire hazard in wooden buildings.
*. Other clichés abound. Horses rear in a thunderstorm as Duncan is killed. For no reason at all there’s a shot of Macbeth rising from a mountain stream like an underwear model. When Lady Macbeth wants her husband to screw his spirit to the sticking point she of course mounts him and they have intercourse. Get it?
*. Most of all, however, I hated how dull this movie was. How did this happen? Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s shortest, liveliest plays, but the pacing here is dreadful. The ending drags on forever. In most productions you can at least count on the witches to provide a spark, but here even they seem bored (not to mention pedestrian).
*. How many children had Lady Macbeth? At least one here (the child being torched in the opening scene), but I also had the impression that the boy killed in the battle was supposed to be Macbeth’s son.
*. This struck me as a fair interpretation, and it’s not the only one. This may be the worst production of Macbeth I’ve seen — and I’ve seen more than a few on stage and screen — but it’s not without some interesting ideas. I was particularly taken by the smoke from the burning forest being the way Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane. It means gutting the text, but I thought it worked.
*. The use of Bamburgh Castle, which stood in for Dunsinane in Polanski’s Macbeth as well, only served to remind me of how far from adequate this version is. There’s just none of the fundamental sense of someone having gotten in over his head and his weariness with the game at the end. We have hints of Fassbender’s Macbeth turning full heel, but he never seems to get there. Meanwhile, aside from Lady Macbeth the other characters are scarcely differentiated. Banquo, Macduff, and Malcolm are scarcely more than cameos. But instead of that placing more focus on the two leads the feeling I had was that Kurzel was more interested in the landscape.
*. I guess I should say something about how well received this movie was. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at Cannes and won a bunch of awards. The critical consensus was very high. All of this for a movie so bad that I found it nearly unwatchable or else just unintentionally hilarious after about ten minutes. I realize there’s no accounting for taste, but this has to rank as one of the worst derelictions of critical duty I’ve seen in recent years. This Macbeth should have been met with an at best tepid response. What kind of a world are we living in where it could be taken seriously? It’s a film of no depth. We can only say it looks pretty. For many critics this was enough. Or is that all they’ve come to expect?