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Uneven Macbeth Retains a 'Certain Cultural Value'

Uneven <i>Macbeth</i> Retains a 'Certain Cultural Value'

DVD Release Date: March 8, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: December 4, 2015 (limited)
Rating: R (for strong violence and brief sexuality)
Genre: Drama, War
Run Time: 113 minutes
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Reynor

Macbeth, or "The Scottish play," as superstitious theater people call it, is one of Shakespeare's tragedies so it’s a given that the body count will be high. It was surprising—but revealing—to open on the body a child. A small Macbeth, implied but not named in the original play, is laid to rest by his grieving parents. It sets the tone for the rest of the story, a dark tale of ambition, pride, and madness.

These are dark days in medieval Scotland; war is raging. We see the decisive battle between the king's loyal general Macbeth (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class) and the traitor Macdonwald in all its violent glory. It's a ballet of destruction, alternating between real-time sound and fury and silent slow motion before ending in hard-won victory for Macbeth. Next up: witches. Shakespeare called for three but director Justin Kurzel (The Snowtown Murders) added a fourth, a mute child. They loom appropriately through the fog to deliver prophecies: that Macbeth shall be king and his buddy Banquo (Paddy Considine, The World's End) will be the father of kings. That gives both men something to think about as they head home from the war.

With peace restored, it’s time to celebrate. The current king, Duncan (David Thewlis, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), invites himself to Macbeth's home to do just that. Bad move, your majesty: Macbeth's wife (Marion Cotillard, Inception) heard all about her husband's prophesied promotion and can't wait to move into the castle. She persuades the hubs to hurry things along by murdering the king who stands in their way. Cotillard is marvelous; she exudes a dark aura of grief and anger that brooks no argument to her deadly plan. In an odd scene that suggests plotting an assassination is better than Viagra, the couple manages to multitask, planning treason even while otherwise engaged.

Despite the number of violent acts this is not an action movie. The story moves on in inexorable, bloody fashion with a deliberate pace that is not quite slow but doesn't exactly get the audience's pulses racing, either (in fact, I distinctly heard snoring from the row behind me). “If it were done when 'tis done,” Macbeth muses, “then 'twere well it were done quickly.” It seems director Kurzel chose to ignore his main character's advice.

It’s a moody piece and the design reflects that, full of fog and damp and the wild, barren beauty of Scotland in winter. The entire film was shot on location, most of it outside, which adds a certain realistic grubbiness to the piece. It feels cold, and harsh, and the people are dwarfed by their surroundings, adding to the loneliness of it all. The final battle is all in shades of red as though we’re seeing it through blood-soaked eyes.  

Back at Macbeth’s homestead the foul deed is done (finally) by Macbeth, covered up by his Lady, and the prophecy fulfilled. Sadly for the now-royal couple they’re not able to enjoy their new status for long. Macbeth rapidly slides into madness, murdering people—including his friends and their families—any time he feels the least bit threatened. He blabs incriminating details at one of the most awkward dinner parties ever, wanders outside in his nightie to consort with the witches, and generally falls apart. Lady Macbeth hangs on to her own sanity with grim determination, but eventually she, too, gives up the fight. Her famous “mad scene” is chilling, all the more because it’s delivered with such quiet despair.

I found Fassbender’s performance more uneven. Sometimes he’s fantastic; his hard, weather-beaten and war-torn exterior not quite hiding the damaged soul inside. Other times he’s just kind of odd. Much of that oddness I place at the director’s door; surely Kurzel was the one who decided  Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech would be whispered over his dead wife’s body. Speaking of whispering, much of Macbeth’s dialogue is muttered in a monotone that can make him hard to follow, while his final lines are delivered so slowly I found myself mentally urging him to “just shut up and die already.” When he’s good, he’s very good, but when he’s not you’ll be glad the movie clocks in under two hours. 

Look, it’s interesting in its way and it’s (mostly) Shakespeare so it has a certain cultural value. I wouldn’t say not to see it... you just need to know what you’re in for if you do.

CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Macbeth and others drink from goblets that presumably contain alcohol. Macbeth occasionally acts drunk but could just be crazy. He drinks something nasty given to him by the witches.
  • Language/Profanity: A couple of exclamations along the lines of Lady Macbeth’s famous “Out, da**ed spot” but they go by almost unnoticed in the flow of Shakespearean prose.
  • Sex/Nudity: The Macbeths have a sexually charged relationship and apparently find plotting a murder to be a turn on. Nothing is explicitly shown but it’s obvious what they’re up to and it’s not just planning and assassination.
  • Violent/Frightening/Intense: There are numerous battle scenes that include things such as stabbing, death by arrows, slashed throats, and blood spatter. Animal scavengers come to feed on the bodies. Duncan’s murder is violent and gory (“Yet who would have thought,” Lady Macbeth ponders, with good reason, “the old man to have had so much blood in him?”) A woman and her children are hunted down like animals and later burnt at the stake (mostly off-stage). Macbeth is forever embracing dead companions, whether they are actually present in the flesh or as ghosts.
  • Spiritual: At one point Macbeth cries out to Satan.

Publication date: December 9, 2015