Adapting a well-known piece of art, and having it succeed, requires bringing something new to the table. Remakes and reboots face this challenge as well. So for Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth, by my count at least the 17th straight retelling (as opposed to adaptation) in English for the big and/or small screen of William Shakespeare’s famed tragedy, this production needs something particularly noteworthy to distinguish it from, say, Orson Welles’ or Roman Polanski’s versions. Fortunately for audiences, Kurzel’s take on the tragedy mixes breathtakingly gorgeous cinematography with performances from Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard that provide new twists on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.
For those who have forgotten about the play since high school (or if you skipped the play, SPOILERS): Macbeth tells the story of (who else?) Macbeth, a Scottish general who is told by a group of witches that he will one day become the King of Scotland. Between his own ambition and that of his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and takes the throne. His guilt eventually turns into paranoia, and his rule quickly turns to tyranny as he murders more people to protect himself. Eventually, a civil war breaks out, and Macbeth is killed in battle.
For a play with some five hundred years’ worth of performances, including many filmed retellings, it takes something special to make yet another version worth watching. Here, the draw in getting viewers is the casting. Fassbender and Cotillard are, as one might predict, compelling choices for the roles, but what makes their takes on the characters stand out is some narrative reconfiguration that the film makes to create new dynamics.
The most notable is the inversion of insanity on display from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Historically, both go insane due to their guilt over King Duncan’s murder, and that holds true here. What’s different is the way they each go insane. Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth urges her husband to kill King Duncan, and in the initial aftermath maintains a cool approach to the events surrounding her. But her guilt is visibly apparent far sooner than I’ve seen in other renditions of this story, and the path to her eventual suicide is hushed, rather than histrionic. Those histrionics are left instead for Macbeth himself. Here, his madness is on full display, and Fassbender chews the (lusciously appointed) sets until they’re worn bare.
Macbeth’s subsequent murders also are portrayed in a new and chilling manner here. Though the play makes a point of noting that Macbeth has no children to serve as heirs to his throne, the film opens with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in a funeral ceremony for what is clearly their child. Though the scene is small, and no dialogue is added to Shakespeare’s words to incorporate the scene, it gives Macbeth’s treatment of the children of his opponents an added, chilling depth.
On top of these specific changes, Macbeth also discards plenty of the play’s text (most notably, the now-infamous “double, double toil and trouble” part with the witches) in favor of letting visuals tell the story. It’s one thing to hear of Macbeth going insane. It’s quite another to see him running around in circles around his bed. More importantly, the battlefields take on a stylized sense of impending doom – particularly the climactic battle between Macbeth and Macduff, here set in a field shot in bright red.
All of this said, this version of Macbeth may not be the best way to first take in the story. While the play’s iambic pentameter is technically intact, the actors deliver it without the heightened theatricality of most Shakespearean productions. With that, some of the power of the text might be lost to those who aren’t familiar with it. But for those willing to take a chance, and especially for those who have a solid knowledge of Shakespeare’s play, this version of Macbeth may provide some new ways to appreciate the Scottish play.