Film Posts 26: Macbeth – 14th October, 2015

macbeth posterPeople who know me, or who’ve read this blog, know that I like Shakespeare. And I’m not a purist about it – I like clever, inventive stagings, and I’m happy with moving the plays into different settings and eras, even though it doesn’t always work.

This new film of Macbeth doesn’t mess about – we’re back in medieval Scotland, with the clans living in tents and huts on wind-ripped moors, battling the environment and the elements as much as the rebellious enemy.

I was very excited when I first saw the trailer – Macbeth! Fassbender!! – but the excitement didn’t last through the film.

The Macbeths at home

The Macbeths at home

Sometimes you just take against a film from the start. When I saw Forrest Gump, for some reason I didn’t like the opening shot of the feather floating down – it just seemed too….showy. And that set me against the film, and I came out firmly in the “hated it” camp (Forrest Gump polarises opinion like nothing else).

And unfortunately this version of Macbeth did the same – irritated me early and never recovered.

As I say, I don’t think I’m a Shakespeare purist, and I know that directors making films of Shakepeare plays often move speeches around in the interests of narrative flow, where cinematic editing allows cuts and transitions that can’t be done on stage.

But why gratuitously change the words? The opening scene of the witches – “When shall we three meet again/In thunder, lightening or in rain…..” – is well-known, and doesn’t really need changing. So why did the screenwriters change “Where the place? Upon the heath/There to meet with Macbeth” (which fits the rhythm and has the “heath/Macbeth” half-rhyme) to “Where the place? Upon the battlefield/…..” What’s the point? In what way does that make anything better? It doesn’t add anything (the battlefield is on the heath, and we’re about to be taken there in the next shot), and it doesn’t fit the metre. It may be a small thing (like Forrest Gump‘s feather) but it wound me up.

"To be thus is nothing. But to be safely thus..."

“To be thus is nothing. But to be safely thus…”

And from that early point, I wasn’t well-disposed to the film, which possibly made it more difficult for me to see the positives. But it felt very episodic, the story told in bullet points, as if the director (Justin Kurzel) had gone through the play highlighting the main plot points he needed to include, with the screenwriters identifying the “big speeches” that needed to be slotted in, and then they banged the whole lot together with some (admittedly impressively staged) violent battles.

On stage, Macbeth runs around three hours. In this cinema version, it’s less than two, and there are a lot of long, silent shots; so that’s an awful lot of dialogue that’s been taken out. And what remains doesn’t make sense. Much of the narrative drive has gone with the cuts in the text, the characters’ words which reveal motive replaced by shots of Fassbender and Marion Cotillard (as Lady Macbeth) looking moody. The characters have lost their depth. And much of what dialogue remains is delivered rather flat, with little emotion.

"At least we'll die with harness on our back"

“At least we’ll die with harness on our back”

The scenery is nice, and the battle sequences are well-staged. The contrast between the bleak clan settlement and the lavish castle and vestments of the King Macbeth is striking The film isn’t awful. But it’s no more than OK, and I can’t remember when I last anticipated a film so much, and came away so disappointed.

Ho hum.

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2 Responses to Film Posts 26: Macbeth – 14th October, 2015

  1. calensariel says:

    Good review. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Macbeth. I read it in high school MANY moons ago. Thank you for that overview. If I ever want to watch it I’ll rent a different version. Are you a Star Wars fan, Howard? I’m pretty excited for the new one coming out on December 17th.


  2. Thank you, Calen. I also studied Macbeth for “O Level” (15 years old, or so), and I didn’t really get it. But somewhere along the way, Shakespeare worked his magic on me. If you can find it, try Patrick Stewart’s version of Macbeth (televised in the UK a few years ago), though there is also a Kenneth Branagh production from the National Theatre a few years ago that I want to see, which I think may be available for rental somewhere (I’m a big Branagh fan).

    And yes, very excited by Star Wars. Should be in good hands with JJ Abrams. And the new trailer looks brilliant.


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