Macbeth (2015, Justin Kurzel)
The works of Bill Shakes appear to be ideal cinematic fodder. We’re talking murder, intrigue, passion, revenge, knob gags… And the dialogue ain’t bad either. Yet despite these classic ingredients, over the years very few classic Shakespeare movies have been served up.
There’s Olivier’s Henry V (1944), The Welles Shakespeare trilogy of Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952) and Chimes at Midnight (1965), Polanski’s good-but-not-great version of Macbeth (1971) and, er, that’s about it.
The key issue for a director when adapting Shakespeare is how to make it cinematic. Macbeth is a popular choice because there are loads of murders, the potential for special effects (the witches, Banquo’s ghost), and a big-ass climax (the Burnham Wood to Dunsinane battle).
Justin Kurzel with his new version has gone overboard in trying to prove what a dynamic visual stylist he is. Is it possible for a film to have too many good shots? Macbeth might set the precedent. At first, the huge widescreen images of Scotland are bold and dripping with atmosphere. But after a while they become wearing and repetitive. It’s like going round the Uffizi gallery in Florence; to begin with you’re blown away by the pictures, then, after the hundredth stunning Renaissance canvas, you’re reduced to “Yeah, that’s not bad.”
Kurzel does at least save the best for last – the final ruckus between Macbeth and Macduff, against the backdrop of a burning Burnham wood, is seriously good filmmaking.
What of the performances? Michael Fassbender makes a predictably brilliant Macbeth, pulling off the tough-guy soldier/ruthlessly ambitious politician combo at the heart of the character. Marion Cotillard, however, is a strange choice as Lady Macbeth. While obviously a great actor, it seems counterproductive to cast a French speaker to utter Shakespearean dialogue. Put simply, her speech rhythms are wrong. (French is syllable-timed; English is stress-timed). The filmmakers have also chosen to greatly reduce the role of Lady Macbeth, denying us any depth to the story’s key relationship.
Maybe filmmakers need to give up on straight Shakespeare adaptations. One of my favourite Shakespeare films is 10 Things I Hate About You (1999, Gil Junger), which takes The Taming of the Shrew as its jumping-off-point but turns it into a teen rom-com. I admit this sounds horrible, but it’s actually rather good.