Macbeth: a critical glimpse at the movie

The 2015 cinematic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth directed by Justin Kurzel with Hollywood superstar Michael Fassbender in the title role, is a film worth watching for both, Shakespeare fans and movie lovers of the historical genre. The Shakespearean script’s adaptation to the screen was written by Jacob Koskoff, Todd Louiso and Michael Lesslie. The role of Lady Macbeth is portrayed by Marion Cotillard.

The movie does not provide a completely faithful adaptation of the Bard’s script, to what otherwise may have been assumed to be ‘a film version’ of the play Macbeth, so to say. Therefore, young students of literature, such as, those reading English literature in school, best not consider this movie as a cinematic depiction of the storyline Shakespeare scripted for the stage. However, this work of cinema through its brilliant portrayals of lead characters powerfully brought to life by Fassbender and Cotillard can certainly be a tool for studies in character analysis within the scope of Shakespeare studies. Although literary studies are essentially the study of written texts, the understanding of character depictions of drama texts may not rely solely on written dialogue. And, the fundamental objectives of drama scripts are that they are scripted in order to be transformed into performance. Therefore, gauging the purpose or nature of a particular part of dialogue of any play can become much clearer to students when they watch a performance based on that script.

Often in our times, we may feel that Shakespearean language is unrealistic and literarily dramatic in its very essence. When thinking of today’s styles of speech, Shakespeare’s dialogues may seem almost removed from reality. Therefore, it is important to look at the style of dramatisation in a work of Shakespeare of the stage or the screen. Justin Kurzel’s direction of Macbeth does not bring out a notably theatricalized form of performance. There are of course emotional and dramatic moments shown by actors, but in a way, it makes it clear that the form is not for the stage, and brings out a flow of natural expressions that make the dialogue seem more real and possible to see as speech that could actually happen in a real situation, in times long ago in a country far removed from our culture.

One of the very notable features in this work of cinema is how the craft of cinema has been employed strikingly to make this work standout as a work of cinema based on Shakespeare’s drama script, and not a film meant to show the Shakespearean play happening on screen. The landscape of Scotland has been made a significant aspect in this work to the extent that it contributes immensely to the story’s pulse and the emotions evoked visually. It is as though the landscape almost becomes a character in the scheme of the visual narrative. In the 2014 Cannes award winning film, the Turkish film, Winter Sleep directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, the landscape and geographical setting in which the story unfolds occupies a powerful visual presence and is a pivotal element in the narrative.

I commented in my article, in the 7th June 2015 issue of the Sunday Observer’s Spectrum, of the significance of the landscape in Winter Sleep. Ceylan’s film presents a landscape that is almost like the ‘silent character’ among the host of characters who drive the story, set in Anatolia of Turkey. Although not perhaps in the same strength as in Winter Sleep, Kurzel’s Macbeth too plays on the significance of the landscape. The Scottish highlands, the fields, and mist painted landscape in Kurzel’s movie contribute to refine the flow of the story. One of the great advantages that cinema has over theatre is to depict geography for the viewer. This cinematic truth has been captivatingly demonstrated by Kurzel in unfolding the story of the tragic Scottish thane who became a prisoner of power lust and superstition.

Kurzel’s adaptation has several additions, as well as omissions, when compared to Shakespeare’s script. For students of literature here are some key points worth noting for the purpose of doing a comparative study of how Kurzel’s adaptation differs from Shakespeare’s original story. One is how the witch’s prophesy about when Macbeth may be defeated, and that is when Birnam wood comes to Dunsinane hill. The line in Shakespeare’s play reads as -”Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.”. In Act 5 Scene V of the original of the play, Macbeth is told by a messenger that he saw Birnam wood begin to move towards the castle. And, what is revealed is that the invading army that seeks to overthrow Macbeth was advancing through Birnam wood camouflaged by tree boughs, which would make them seem from afar as a moving grove. Kurzel’s film deviates in this regard. What is shown in the film is that Birnam wood has been set on fire by the advancing army and that the ashes of the forest are blown by the wind into Macbeth’s castle which is on Dunsinane. Here, Kurzel demonstrates a creative interpretation of the prophesy giving different symbolism. What comes as ‘Birnam wood’ to Macbeth’s castle in this film is black ash from a forest in flames. The black ashes can be seen as a symbol of death. This element in the film can be thought of as a creative deviation of interpretation which is one of the beauties of art and literature.

Another significant aspect to note is how Macbeth’s end is shown in the film. Shakespeare’s play presents Macbeth and Macduff locked in a sword fight which takes them battling off stage, after which Macduff reappears as the victor and at the end presents Macbeth’s severed head to Malcolm, the son of slain King Duncan, who is thereby the rightful heir to the Scottish throne. This film shows Macbeth, upon learning that the last of the witch’s prophesies has come true, (since Macduff, said to be born of a caesarean section delivery and therefore interpreted as not ‘a woman born’) ceasing his resistance and allowing Macduff to push in his blade. Furthermore, Macbeth’s head is not decapitated and his dead body is merely abandoned on the battlefield. What is intriguing is that in this film, Macbeth is shown gaining the upper hand in the duel with Macduff and he has his nemesis pinned to the ground with his dagger’s tip at Macduff’s throat. Yet, a sudden change of tide happens when in that intense moment Macbeth is told that the man he has at the tip of his blade is ‘not a woman born’.

The scheme of portrayal of Macbeth’s end in this film is clearly a deviation from the end in Shakespeare’s play. What may be gauged when looking at the craft in this film to portray Macbeth, is that it seems, Kurzel crafts a portrayal that shows Macbeth’s character as one (despite the tyranny and ruthless cruelty) that is yet courageous and worthy of some respect even at the end, while also showing how submissive he was to the power of prophesy by which he believed his rise and right to kingship was established.

Therefore, one may say, Kurzel shows a Macbeth who is deeply entrenched in superstition and his character is defined in this film even at the very end, through his unwavering belief in the witch’s prophecy and fate.

The end shows another directorial liberty of adaptation by Kurzel which also builds powerfully on the theme of the power of prophesy. The play does not say at the end if the witch’s prophecy, of Banquo being a father to kings will come true. Kurzel however, ends his work with a very creative element that shows Banquo’s son Fleance (who is a mere child) who had earlier escaped the assassins sent by Macbeth, come to the empty battlefield and run off with Macbeth’s sword. Perhaps, one day he will mount a challenge to the throne? The film ends with the idea for possibilities to dwell on the prophecy. 

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