The Scottish Play. If you’re the superstitious sort, or are making stilted, pseudo-intellectual, small talk at a middle class dinner party while The Buena Vista Social Club album makes for innocuous aural wallpaper, that’s probably how you refer to Shakespeare’s nimblest tragedy, the cursed tale of a noble, honourable man destroyed by his ambition and thirst for power, the play’s title never to be spoken aloud in a theatre lest you invite disaster and calamity.
As Donald Sinden once pointed out however, Macbeth (arguably Shakespeare’s most popular play), far from being cursed, has saved many a theatre, particularly struggling reps, from ruin, producers and artistic directors knowing that after a particularly bad run, a staging of the Scottish Play is a licence to print money, putting guaranteed bums on seats. When it comes to the movies though, there may just be something in all that curse blether.
With the obvious exception of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood, there’s never been a particularly good, satisfying film adaptation of Macbeth. There’s been countless filmed stage versions (Trevor Nunn’s 1978 staging worth it for Judy Dench as Lady M) which singularly fail to catch the electricity of the live performance. A Russian animated version with the majestic Brian Cox as the doomed Thane. Both Connerys, Sean and Jason, have had a tilt at the role, Big Tam for a 1961 Canadian TV play, Connery Jr for a not-as-bad-as-you’re-expecting 1997 feature that looks like it’s budget was raised with scratch cards. The Beeb gave us Macbeth’s Kitchen Nightmares with James McAvoy as the murderous head chef of a Michelin-starred Glasgow restaurant who’s still not as loathsome as Gordon Ramsay. The guy who made Romper Stomper updated the story to modern Melbourne’s gangland and cast human/Thunderbird puppet hybrid Sam Worthington in a film that’s almost exactly as bad as you imagine it’s going to be from the words SAM! WORTHINGTON! IS! MACBETH!.
Hell, even Orson Welles and Roman Polanski couldn’t crack it, Polanski’s version memorable for it’s nudity and graphic depiction of the slaughter of Macduff’s family just two years after wife Sharon Tate’s murder by the Manson Family and casting Cheggars as Banquo’s son while the thing to be remembered about Welles’ 1948 version is that at least it’s not the Othello he served up to European critical acclaim and audience apathy in 1952 with Kenosha, Wisconsin’s favourite son as the troubled Moor.
Lyrical, spare and shockingly visceral, Aussie director Kurzel’s bloody and beautiful Macbeth may finally be the film the Bard deserves. Resisting the urge to update the play to modern times, to pull a Baz Luhrmann and make a two-hour jukebox-musical or to relocate it to civil war Balkans as Ralph Fiennes did with Coriolanus, Kurzel situates the familiar tale of murderous ambition and capricious fate in a feudal Scotland riven by civil war where it’s obvious David Thewlis’ Duncan is the King – as Monty Python would point out he’s the only one not covered in shit. Pretty much everyone else is though. And blood. Lots of blood.
A loyal noble, Macbeth (Fassbender) and his comrade Banquo (Considine) lead the ragged Scottish army to victory against the usurper’s invading Scandinavian mercenary force, delivering the rebel’s severed head to King Duncan. Returning from the battle, Macbeth and Banquo encounter three women in the mist (later joined by a fourth, a young girl), witches (Baxter, Kennedy, Fallon and Rissmann) who prophesise that Macbeth, not Duncan, shall be King but that Banquo’s descendants will rule after him. When the triumphant Duncan overnights at Macbeth’s isolated village, Macbeth and his wife (Cotillard) seize their chance and mount a coup d’etat, assassinate Duncan, Macbeth taking the throne, shifting the blame to some murdered patsies. But as Duncan’s exiled son Malcolm (Reynor) marshals his forces South of the border, Macbeth, plagued by paranoia and guilt, takes violent action against his opponents.
From it’s opening image – a dead infant, Macbeth’s child placed on a funeral pyre and cremated as the witches watch from afar – the spectre of death haunts the film, not merely Banquo’s ghost or Duncan’s butchery or the hyper-reality of the battle scenes but the ghosts of dead children, from the slaughter of Macduff’s family to Macbeth’s blue-hued infant to his squire, a boy soldier we meet as Fassbender ties a sword to his hand and steels him for the battle ahead. The next time they meet, the boy is being shovelled into a mass grave, sword still in his dead hand.
At its heart a war film, arguably Kurzel’s Macbeth is as much about grief and the emotional and psychological cost of war as it is about envy and ambition, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equally steeped in pain and loss as they are in violence. Obviously plagued by guilt and PTSD – the dead squire appears to Macbeth at pivotal moments, even offering him the dagger to murder Duncan (the murder a queasy, almost sexual scene that recalls the grubby cruelty of Kurzel’s pitiless debut Snowtown), the same weapon Macbeth had earlier lashed to his hand – how can a man, any man, be expected to settle back into civilian life after the violence and horror Macbeth’s experienced? Numbed by death and loss, why not murder the King, if only to feel something for a moment?
Fassbender has never been better, his conflicted, antihero, torn between duty and desire, haunted by his deeds, trapped in a cycle of violence of his own design, a man who gains the world and loses his soul, by turns seductive and chilling, but always lurking is the savage man of violence, raw and raging, while Cotillard is mesmerising, playing not the scheming, ambitious shrew of a wife we’re often served up, but the grieving mother channelling her pain into her husband’s career, subjugating her own desires for his, her eventual mental unravelling and suicide not through guilt over Duncan’s murder but through witnessing her husband’s slaughter of Macduff’s wife and children. On paper, hiring Cotillard to play Lady Macbeth is a little like casting Jack Nicholson for The Shining; you’re just waiting for them to tear the top of the crazy tin and chew the scenery. But instead her Lady M is understated and sympathetic, heartbreaking. Considine is solid and decent as the honourable Banquo, Thewlis acquits himself well as Duncan, young Jack Reynor impresses as Malcolm and, though actual Scots are sparse in the Scottish Play’s international cast, Baxter, Kennedy, Fallon and Rissmann are wonderfully unsettling as the witches while Scottish hard men actors David Hayman and Maurice Roeves lend a certain cragginess to the chorus of Thanes. Perhaps the film’s greatest crime however, other than not giving the wonderful Roeves more to do, is the perverse casting of Sean Harris as Macduff, Macbeth’s nemesis, who mumbles, tics and sneers his way through the role, as unintelligible here as he was in Jamaica Inn.
While True Detective, Top Of The Lake and Animal Kingdom cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shoots the wild, blasted Scottish landscape like it’s an alien world (to be fair, much of the film was shot in Skye) and Kurzel brings the same frantic, inevitable, bloody voluptuousness to the violence as he did to Snowtown, the final battle a red-filtered, apocalyptic fever dream of war, what’s most surprising about Macbeth is how quiet the film feels, how reliant it is not on words but on images; the brooding landscape, the craggy faces of the court, the mud, the blood, the exhilarating intensity of the violence, the slo-mo hack and slash. Make no mistake, Kurzel’s Macbeth never once feels like a filmed stage play, it’s a movie!
Bleak, beautiful and ferocious, Kurzel’s brooding, muscular Macbeth is an enthralling, visceral experience.