Macbeth part 2
The Great Tragedy
It might be odd to spoiler warning an adaptation of a 400 year old play everyone studied in highschool… but I’ll defend the choice.
Kurzel has done really incredible things with his script and uncovers a ton of themes in the text of the play that I really haven’t seen fully developed in other productions. Beyond that he manages some really incredible visual storytelling that creates powerful statements and really change characters.
If you haven’t seen it and intend to, going in cold might be better (but seriously do watch with subtitles unless Scottish is your native dialect).
I advise you to skip to the Conclusion.
A lot of commentator’s on the film have been very cursory with describing Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth as having PTSD… This is in part owing to interviews Fassbender has done where he talks about this theme and how it inflected his acting… But there’s so much more to it than that.
The film opens on the funeral of a child, maybe 2 or 3 years old, before revealing this is the child of Lord and Lady Macbeth. Now it is much debated whether Shakespeare’s Macbeth had a child… there are lots of textual supports, Lady Macbeth says she “Has given suck” to a babe, with many other lines similarly alluding, indeed one of the major plot point’s is Macbeth’s terror that he will have no heir’s succeeding and instead have sullied his hands for Banquo’s children to take the throne… but its always been on the edge of the story. Kurzel however draws this front and center, having the 3 witches opening lines occur as they look upon the sad Macbeth’s cremating their babes, perhaps even suggesting they were authoring Macbeth’s tragedy this early.
We then flash forward to the Battle of Ellon, and we actually see Macbeth in action. In Shakespeare’s script and in the vast majority of productions we usually are only given a soldier’s report of what happened at the battle… but here we are given a long sequence of Macbeth and his comrades preparing for the battle, we see him take a young child soldier under his wing to protect, we see the brutality of the fighting, and we witness the horror of the battle, and we see Macbeth, Banquo and the other soldiers gathering the bodies of their fallen and Macbeth cleaning and readying the fallen body of that same boy he took under his wing, a symbolic second son he has to prepare for the boatman… and in the midst of this we see cuts to King Duncan… Bedecked in the only bright colors we’ve yet seen, sitting safe in his tent as he receives news of other men winning his battles… in a truly inspired bit of staging when he announces the Thane of Cawdor is to die and Macbeth take his title, he does it to the failed rebel’s face! we witness the execution carried out… by other men.
By the time act one is drawing to a close and Macbeth and Duncan meet the tension is palpable, every audience in the world knows Macbeth will kill Duncan, but here we can already understand why: Macbeth is risking his life and enduring horrors so that Duncan can sit in his tent and keep a throne he seems incapable of holding. This insult is redoubled when Duncan names his son his heir and celebrates him at Macbeth’s feast.
An insult not because Macbeth feels the crown is rightfully his, but because he is parading what the Macbeths have lost.
Fassbender’s Macbeth laments that his morality cannot abide killing Duncan…as his king and kin, and as his guest… but those are his formal ethics, personally he hates the man, and resents being ruled by him. Paying the horrendous price of another man’s royalty.
During the feast we see children playing a game, one child wears a crown and is chased by the others, when one catches them they take the crown and now its their turn to be chased. THIS is what the Scots did in this period, the crown changed hands every few years… The other lords share knowing looks and words as Macbeth ascends the throne. Such things are expected.
Rather Macbeth’s undoing is his paranoia that he’s placed himself next in the chain of usurpations… one the witches allude to and encourage, that Banquo shall get kings… but also one Banquo aspires to. Kurzel stages Banquo’s monologue on his hopes for his son, not as an aside but to young Fleance himself… a burden Banquo might not have even realized he was placing on the boy. And its Macbeth’s paranoia that leads him to commit his horrendous crime’s against Macduff and his family.
Yet in spite of the horror and harrowing staging of these abysmal crimes, in spite of the gothic terror woven into the cinematography… Kurzel does not stage Macbeth as a villain, but rather as classical tragic hero, such as Oedipus or Agamemnon or Achilles… The camera lingers on Lady Macduff’s accusation, that Macbeth was once thought honest… and unlike other productions which has shown Macbeth as a weak man or coward, this Macbeth has an incredible nobility to him: he mourns Lady Macbeth, the lovely and excellent Marion Cotillard, with a moving deepness… he meditates on his his ruin with a kingly dignity and mythical quality.
Hail, King of Scotland
And then we come to one of Kurzel’s best uses of the text:
What is a few throwaway lines in most productions buried amidst a dialogue… here is moved up into extraordinary prominence…Originally from Act 5 Scene 3, Kurzel shifted these lines two scenes back and gives them more prominence than even the “Tomorrow and tomorrow” speech:
I have liv’d long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.
This is an incredible piece of Shakespearean verse that I had certainly never registered before and most Shakespearean productions and popular scholarship just sorta glosses over.
Of course Michael Fassbender makes the lines sing beautifully… but what jumps out to me is:
These could be lines from The Wanderer!
The famous Anglo-Saxon poem from the 10th century. Of course few of us can read Old English, so you might be more familiar with JRR Tolkien’s modern adaptation of the poem Lament for the Rohirrim or Bernard Hill’s excellent delivery of the poem in the film version.
Kurzel has not only removed 16th century Anachronisms from the Shakespearean text, he has drawn forth and highlighted lines that bleed with that Celtic and Anglo-Saxon spirit, still half pagan, of the 10th and 11th century… he draws the nobility and tragedy of the early medieval period into his Macbeth.
This Macbeth sallies forth to meet Duncan’s attacking army. He fights like the hellhound alluded in the text, he fights until he is cut and stabbed multiple times… til he has lost multiple swords and wields not but a dagger…
REAL SPOILERS NOW (skip down to the Conclusion or consider yourself warned)
And when he learns Macduff (played by an extraordinary Sean Harris) was of no woman born, and sees his force has surrendered and abandoned him… he refuses to surrender, resolving to try the last… but he does not fight Macduff. He yells at Macduff that “damned be him that first cry: Hold! Enough!”…but he does not fight him.
He grabs hold of Macduff and lets Macduff stab him… and stands his ground as Macduff stabs him multiple times… standing sturdy through each in a feat of noble will.
Malcolm himself comments Macbeth, fallen alone and abandoned, is “worth more sorrow”.
And when Macduff gives the final salute “Hail, King of Scotland” Its ambiguous whether he means the young Malcolm, or the slain Macbeth.
Even abandoned by his subjects, Macbeth has earned an undying respect in his enemies.
(and indeed Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in part because the historical figure was still regarded as an ancient enemy of the Stuarts (descended from both Malcolm and Fleance). Both greatness and infamy write one’s name upon history)
Kurzel has stretched his staging and interpretation of the text very far indeed, farther than many of the most ambitious adaptations… but it works. It works incredibly well. As I’ve said this Macbeth has much of the Pagan hero in him…Such as doomed Achilles or Agammenon, half divine yet fatally flawed, or such as one might find in the great northern sagas.
Which brings us back to the circularity of the chain of usurpation… The cycle of violence, perhaps the most ancient theme of tragedy.
Macduff finds himself at the end of the play in much the same position as Macbeth at the beginning…fighting battles for a King who sits safely off the field…risking his life without an heir to inherit his fame… Kurzel frames the final shot with Macbeth and Macduff both sitting slashed and exhausted on the field, while Malcolm and his court ride by unbloodied and unbothered.
Might Macduff try for the throne after slaying Malcolm’s usurper, just as Macbeth did after slaying Duncan’s rebel?
The final shot is the darkest.
After everyone else has left the battlefield and Macbeth’s body rests alone, young Fleance wanders onto the field.
The witches prophesies have reached and poisoned yet one remaining set of ears.
As he wanders up to Macbeth and sees he no longer needs to seek vengeance, yet he wanders over to the king’s sword… the usurper’s sword.
Whether out of nature, or the pressure of dream his father shared with him, Fleance takes the sword… we see him carry it off into the blood red sunset, as Malcolm contemplates his own sword in the throne-room.
A future war for the crown now inevitable.
Now this almost certainly wasn’t Shakespeare’s intent for his themes when he wrote Macbeth. The historical Fleance went to Wales and married a great great… something… Granddaughter of King Arthur, and then his descendants eventually wandered back to Scotland, claimed the Scottish throne, intermarried with the English royal family, became the Stuarts, and after the death of Elizabeth 1, James Stuart of Scotland Ascended the throne of England restoring divinely anointed pendragon rule… or at least that’s what the Stuart’s Genealogists, Curtis Yarvin, and William Shakespeare at least feign to believe… in 1606 when Macbeth was first performed Shakespeare was a propagandist looking for patrons after the death of Elizabeth I, his former patron, and James Stuart probably would have seen the original staging of Macbeth.
So Kurzel’s reading of the endless cycle of violence and usurpation is maybe not exactly what Shakespeare intended, or at-least not anything he’d mouth aloud… but it is true to the history of the Scottish crown… None of the historical Macbeth’s successors lasted much longer than he did… hell its true to the Scottish crown that came down to rule England in Shakespeare’s day: The Stuarts faired little better in the century to follow Shakespeare’s production.
But more importantly its true to the history of the tragical form. This is a telling of Macbeth that rings true to our age of imperial misadventure, to doomed dynasty of Shakespeare’s time, to the 11th century history, and to the countless millennia of tragedians that came before.
I have not covered nearly enough… entire essays could be written on Marion Cotillard’s beautifully vulnerable Lady Macbeth, the gorgeous use of costume, the haunting symbolism… entire courses could be taught on the cinamatograhpy, and this is before we get into the compare and contrast with Roman Polanski’s 1971 cult classic Macbeth, or Joel Coen”s (of Coen brother’s fame) recent black and white adaptation with Denzel Washington which takes the character and presents themes almost exactly opposite, presenting Macbeth as a weak man. Then there are the dozens of more traditional adaptions, such as the 2010 Patrick Stuart version which imagines the story in a soviet republic. Then there’s the loose adaptations Scarface and Throne of Blood already mentioned…
This play has been fodder for discussion and reimagination for 400 years, and it will continue to fascinate for at least 400 more.
But Kurzel’s film version is unique. It is not merely a great adaptation and landmark production of Shakespeare, it is a great and landmark FILM. Period.
If such a film had come out adapting Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage or Webster’s The Dutchess of Malfi or any other play from the Jacobean theater, that wasn’t the first or second most famous paly in history, I actually think it would have found a larger audience.
Then the incredible film-making, the sights and sounds and performance would have had a chance to breath… to not be ninth or tenth in a list… Fassbender would not have been sandwiched between Patrick Stuart and Denzel Washington… 11th century Scotland would have been an interesting setting instead of a mere return to default when contrasted with the Soviet Union, or Coen’s Surrealist nightmare, or 1980s Miami, or Colonial Africa… or whatever post-post modern imagining the next dramatist comes up with.
This was one of the best movies of the past decade, because it set out to be a great film… its moving and accessible and authentic and shocking in a way every great film aspires to be… and I think the title and the baggage of too many English classes held it back.
I think the fawning admiration of so many Shakespeare nerds for so many adaptations that general audiences found less than interesting… I think it scared general audiences away from a film that plain lovers of Historical action movies, or horror films, or costume dramas, or westerns would really enjoy.
Its heartrending, terrifying, beautiful, and has a nobility few films today can muster.
New adaptations of Macbeths, new settings, new actors and directors trying to bring their mark to the role… On stage or film. Its a yearly occurance.
But Kurzel’s Macbeth was a unique addition to film as film. It deserves to be viewed as such.
thus the subtitle of part 1.
This is the greatest Shakespeare Film.
And I hope more will follow it’s example.
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