La Pièce Écossaise

Macbeth (2015)

macbeth-2015

A week ago today I had the great fortune to see an early showing of the latest film adaptation of Macbeth – for free no less!
Starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the eponymous Thane and Lady, the film has, rather fittingly, usurped the position of my favourite adaptation, previously held by the McAvoy/Hawes ShakespeaRe-Told version (which is still quite good – some of the other pieces in the series not so much, but they are far from the worst). The adaptation was directed by Australian Justin Kurzel, and also features performances by David Thewlis, Paddy Considine and Sean Harris, amongst others.

James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes in ShakespeaRe-Told. I'm serious, this is worth watching.

James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes in ShakespeaRe-Told.
I’m serious, this is worth watching.

I thought that Thewlis’ performance a bit staid – by the numbers, really. To be fair, the role of Duncan doesn’t really leave much room to make it one’s own. More of a necessary element to be dispensed with for the plot, it’s a placeholder. Thewlis did the job well enough, but there is nothing about it that required him, if you follow.

Banquo, as played by Considine, however, was a different story. A role with more meat, Considine did a fine job at balancing the desires of the character with, as would have been “true to life,” if such a thing is appropriate in this story, a naturally taciturn, cool demeanour. Reserve, actually, is something that all involved can be lauded for.

I’ve yet to see a great deal of breadth from Harris, but the characters he has played, I’ve always enjoyed. Cast in the role of Macduff, he does a masterful job at balancing the emotional outpouring required of the character while also retaining the seriousness and gravity expected. I like Harris. I’ll continue to be interested in productions he’s involved with, but it would be nice if he weren’t always typecast. Perhaps this will be a springboard away from that.

We’re a full decade on from Batman Begins, responsible in large part for this advocacy of “gritty realism” in film – a push that has been so thorough as to become banal. However, gritty realism is something that fits Macbeth naturally, and this adaptation does a good job at it. The presence of the witches is left ambivalent – they’re a key element in the play, instigators of the plot and guides for it at crucial moments. That said, what they are, their powers, how much they actually know, is left an open question. We’re presented with four women of descending age – three women and a child, really – who are adorned with obviously ritual scarification, and seem to have some eerie foreknowledge. What we don’t get, however, is actual, supernatural magic. So too run the various hallucinations experienced primarily by Macbeth. One of the best elements of Fassbender’s physically-oriented performance is the way he presents the degradation of the character’s mind – wracked by guilt, his mannerisms betray a person under extreme stress. The most supernatural elements of the story fit with a psychological understanding of the world.

The film itself clocks in at just under two hours, longer, in fact, than most stage productions. I’ve always considered the brevity of the play to one of it’s core strengths: it doesn’t mess about with accessory subplots or bog itself down with excessive extra characters, just gets in, denounces lust for power, gets out. The extra time here, though, is used to good effect. Rather than padding with extra dialogue, most of the additional space is used to underline the feel of the story – long-exposure shots of the bleak Scottish countryside at dawn or dusk, time slices focussing on a single character, a single face, in the midst of a busy, chaotic scene. An effective way of evoking the direction desired for the story, the framing, without having to add to the original script – a great strength of the medium, of showing, not telling. The austerity of the setting, the loneliness and confusion, are left palpable.

Stillness amidst chaos. The battlescenes, another well-executed element, allow for moments of psychological insight.

Stillness amidst chaos. The battle scenes, another well-executed element, build psychological tension.

Another strength of film versus theatrical performance is well showcased here, foremost in Cotillard’s performance. Too often in theatre, as product of the physical limitations of the genre as much as anything else, the character of Lady Macbeth is presented as over-the-top, as intense in a loud, percussive way. The same audio constraints don’t apply to film, and this frees Cotillard to present a, not soft, but severely silent performance. The immediacy of hushed lines is apparent, and they carry none of the shrillness that often pushes this character into the realm of melodrama. One of the earliest scenes in the film is the death pyre of her child, and the beaten-down sadness, the cold-burn anger presented by both Fassbender and Cotillard do a wonderful job at setting the tenor of the characters and the story.

If you’re a fan of Shakespeare, or of powerful, beautifully shot cinema, I urge you to get out and see this one in theatres. It’s worth seeing on the big screen.

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Posted on October 4, 2015, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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