Shakespeare’s popular tragedy, Macbeth, has swapped theatre stages for cinema screens many times over the years, but Justin Kurzel’s recent adaptation is very much welcomed among critics and fans of Shakespeare alike.
Macbeth’s rural Scottish setting evokes cold, harsh landscapes, making it the ideal home for corruption and death. Apart from one or two minor tweaks, Kurzel is faithful to the original plot written over four hundred years ago. It has developed appropriately from its theatrical origins, and he makes use of visually stunning cinematic effects without being too crude or over the top.
Film adaptations have access to various techniques not used on the stage, and a particular example is how the high emotion and graphic violence in the battle scenes are emphasised using slow motion, shrouding them with a macabre feel. Kurzel also avoids any element of humour, such as Shakespeare’s drunken porters, allowing the film to truly live up to its tragic status. The constant grey glum that hangs in the air throughout the film makes it difficult to predict the time of day which is disconcerting and ominous; the eery mists, smoky battlefields and mysterious, medieval castles set the perfect scene for the tragic events to unravel.
Kurzel also hones in on the tortured faces of both Macbeth and his Lady with regular close-up shots, highlighting their guilt and eventual self-loathing. These wordless scenes are another great way the tragic nature of the plot is brought to life.
The well-known soliloquies are delivered in a more appropriate way for screen, utilising the ambiguity cinema provides. For example, Lady Macbeth is seen to be talking to God in a room resembling a chapel when delivering her famous, powerful lines. This holy aspect is a clever technique, revealing how her guilt gradually eats away at her.
Marion Cotillard steers slightly away from Shakespeare’s script with her portrayal of Lady Macbeth as she gently fades away into nothingness, her mind tortured by grief and guilt. Her ambitious, emotionless character, so often displayed in various theatrical performances, eventually begins to wither as her husband’s violent rage steers progressively out of control. His unnecessary, graphic murder of Lady Macduff and her children is the climatic moment of Lady Macbeth’s downfall – again, this violent plot twist belongs to Kurzel and is a tool to highlight Lady Macbeth’s true tragic figure.
Macbeth’s soliloquies reflect his fragmented stream of consciousness. In another deviation by the director, the film opens at a funeral-like event, mourning the death of Macbeth’s child. Traumatised by the constant violence of war and the grief of losing offspring, Macbeth’s psyche is visibly affected. The addition of this psychological dimension allows the viewer to slightly empathise with the pitiful figure, as well as explaining his bitterness towards the bloodlines of other men. It is possible Macbeth is experiencing what would now be called PTSD. The constant visions of his other dead son, who is seen brutally murdered in battle (again, a clever addition by Kurzel), and the appearance of the wicked, Weird Sisters reflect his tortured state of mind. This added sense of humanity offers an explanation behind his (what appears to be) irrational decision to violently murder so many innocent people as the film plays out. The extent of his grief mounts as the events accumulate, slowly revealing him as an extreme tragic figure.
Similar to the original script, Lady Macbeth is shown to use her famous seductive persuasion to convince her husband to kill their king. However, this adaptation sees her intense passion go one step further as while they plan the death, she physically engages him in various sexual acts. The raw, sexual images reveal the couple’s search for pleasure, but the natural, instinctive pleasure of sex conflicts with their transgressive attempt to forcefully gain the ultimate pleasure of ruling the kingdom.
This links to the phallic symbol of the dagger used as the weapon to kill Duncan. Their search for pleasure could be a result of the loss of their children and the violent environment of war and death they are forced to constantly endure.
The sensational screenplay brings new life to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Kurzel tinkers with the plot and uses the hard landscape to create a bleak tragedy that encapsulates the key elements of the original script. The irony of the witches’ ambiguous prophecies is revealed perfectly towards the end of the film; the harrowing moment of Macbeth’s realisation epitomises the tragic theme running throughout. Macbeth’s downfall is played out exceptionally by Michael Fassbender, and even though it is likely the viewer is fully aware of the final revelation, his expert display of shock and despair at the hands of the witches’ deceit depict the true pleasure of watching a Shakesperian tragedy. Kurzel’s Macbeth has definitely joined the list of great Shakespearean adaptations.