|Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel. (Photo: Jonathan Olley)|
In the late eighties I saw an incoherent production of Macbeth with Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson that looked as if the actors were making it up as they went along. As my friends and I high-tailed it to the street at intermission, never to return, I theorized that if you’d stopped the play at any point and asked the actors what they were playing, no one on stage would have been able to come up with an answer. Throughout its pre-Broadway tour the show had been shuffling off directors like a snake sheds skin: three had departed by the time we saw it, none of them memorialized by so much as a credit in the playbill. Unsurprisingly, it never opened in New York.
The new movie version of Macbeth with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, directed by Justin Kurzel (whose only previous feature-length credit is something called The Snowtown Murders), isn’t as bad as the Plummer-Jackson version – and, aside from praising the cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, that’s the single comment I can offer in its favor. It’s punishing. The entire cast, which includes David Thewlis as Duncan and Paddy Considine as Banquo, is stuck on the same lugubrious note. Until the Macbeths ascend the Scottish throne and throw a celebratory feast, everyone wears black, and the bagpipes in Jed Kurzel’s mournful score sound almost cheerful by comparison with the line readings. When Duncan informs Macbeth, whom he has just promoted to Thane of Cawdor in honor of his courage in battle, that he’ll be paying the Macbeth castle a visit, Fassbender responds as if he’d just been asked to make funeral arrangements for the traitor whose title he’s inherited. When Banquo talks to his little boy Fleance (Lochlann Harris), from whom he’s been separated by war, father and son don’t even smile at one another. It’s not enough to say that the characters have been stripped of all their complexities; they’re not playing characters at all, just harbingers of doom and gloom. When the actor cast as Macbeth reads the lines “To know my deed, ‘t were best not know myself” and “Is this a dagger that I see before me, / The handle toward my hand?” exactly the same way, it’s obvious that something is getting lost in translation: meaning.
You know you’re in for trouble when Kurzel opens the picture with the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. Sure, there have been Shakespeareans over many generations who have worried over Lady Macbeth’s random reference to breast-feeding a baby in one of her early scenes with her husband and argued over what could have happened to it. It’s one of those stupid debates, like exactly how much time goes by between Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost and the mousetrap scene, that gives scholarship a bad name. And now here are four filmmakers – three of them (Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff and Michael Lesslie) listed as screenwriters – who not only think it’s an idea worth considering but propose it as psychological motivation for the Macbeths’ behavior, as if ambition and power weren’t sufficient incentives for regicide and as if rulers who eliminate their predecessors needed invented reasons for becoming paranoid tyrants.
When Spielberg released a re-edited version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1980, the critic Pauline Kael complained about the scenes he’d cut, arguing that “when you remember something in a movie with pleasure and it’s gone, you feel as if your memories had been mugged.” You don’t expect a movie version of Shakespeare to replicate every line of the text (unless it’s Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour Hamlet), and you can even stand it when a director does some judicious rearranging of scenes and soliloquies. But watching Kurzel’s Macbeth, I didn’t just feel as if my memories were being mugged; I felt as if I were going crazy. The screenwriters have done so much shifting around that it’s as if they’d scissored lines, thrown them into a hat and picked them out again with their eyes closed to determine their order. When Lady Macbeth tells her husband, “What’s done cannot be undone,” she prefaces it with “Hell is murky,” a line that comes out of the much later sleepwalking scene and has nothing remotely to do with the rest of their exchange. When Macduff (Sean Harris) cries about Macbeth, “He has no children,” bemoaning the fact that no revenge he might exact on the man who slaughtered his family would be adequate, he’s supposed to be answering Malcolm (Jack Reynor), who has exhorted him to use his fury against Macbeth in the upcoming battle against him, but the writers have omitted Malcolm’s line, so you have to guess what Macduff is on about. The visuals often don’t match the lines: in this version, Duncan doesn’t just order the Thane of Cawdor’s execution, he pronounces it to the man’s face, so you wonder why he’s referring to him in the third person, and the description Macduff receives of the fates of his family contradicts the way Kurzel films it. Banquo delivers his soliloquy, “Thou hast it now: king, Cawdor, Glamis, all,” to his son, who must wonder if his dad has gone temporarily round the bend and has confused him with the new monarch. My favorite is the murder of Duncan, which Kurzel has chosen to dramatize. Macbeth walks into the tent where Duncan is sleeping (one might wonder why he couldn’t find a suitable chamber in his castle to house the king of Scotland), stabs him repeatedly and then, apparently exhausted by the effort, slumps down next to the bed, where Malcolm finds him, clearly the villain responsible for his father’s murder. So Macbeth draws his bloody knife and touches the prince’s tear-soaked cheek with it, implicitly threatening to kill the crown prince if he tells anyone who killed his dad. What fucking play did these people read?
Macbeth has been ground into such nonsense that I can’t imagine what the actors must think their lines mean. Every single one of them is hornswoggled. I’m not always in Fassbender’s corner, but Macbeth is a part he seems so right for that that I was looking forward to seeing what he’d do with it. He has one chilling moment: when he tells Lady Macbeth, “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife,” he grins at her. And that’s more than Cotillard gets: if you’d never seen her act before, nothing in her performance would lead you to suspect that she’s one of the world’s most exciting movie actresses. It’s hardly her fault; for one thing, she’s obliged to try to lay a Scottish brogue on top of what her natural French accent. What could have impelled Kurzel to have all his actors read Shakespeare’s lines with Scottish accents? It wasn’t exactly a triumph when Orson Welles tried it in 1948. But then, if you tried to figure out what might have been in Kurzel’s mind, or the minds of his writers, when they put together this travesty, you really might go crazy. This time around it’s not life that’s a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing: it’s the damn movie.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.