Justin Kurzil’s red-tinged Macbeth — a weird, out-of-place art flick among the holiday crowd — brings Shakespeare’s tragedy to audiences fresh from six seasons of Game of Thrones. The film’s luscious (and slightly overindulgent) cinematography will draw out film students from their smoke-filled chambers, eager to see Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard go toe-to-toe in history’s darkest and most legendary “kill for the crown” drama.
Macbeth is beautiful, and gives the done-so-many-times play all the violence and grit Shakespeare intended (maybe). It places the difficult iambic pentameter, a language we simply don’t read anymore, in a creepy, misty atmosphere. The movie is melodramatic but cool, and that’s exactly what Macbeth deserves.
The slo-mo opening battle scene happens like a Woodkid music video. When the three witches appear, they are scary in a way that would make Ryan Murphy applaud. Standing in a row, staring blankly at the camera, they transcend the traditional “three witches” stereotype of three hags cackling around a cauldron.
Reinventing the weird sisters is awesome to literary nerds like me. The witches of Macbeth did not start the “three witches” archetype (the Fates and the Erinyes from Greek mythology are probably the most famous example from the ancient world) but they solidified them as staples of modern storytelling. From The Wizard of Oz to Hocus Pocus to A Christmas Carol, supernatural entities meddling in human affairs tend to come in three. Thanks, Shakespeare.
But why Shakespeare? Why are we seeing Macbeth on the screen again? Beyond its gorgeous look, how is the film reappraising or reinvigorating this story for modern audiences?
Well, it’s not. Not really.
The film makes Shakespeare look good, but during the greatest soliloquies, Fassbender and Cotillard seem like they were instructed to stare blankly at the camera and read the lines in front of them while looking as anguished as possible.
In their defense, there is no way for them to do these characters perfectly, at least not for today’s audiences. If you deliver Shakespeare in melodrama, you look ridiculous onscreen. Shakespearean language was designed for melodrama and for the stage. Fassbender and Cotillard were tasked with delivering melodramatic language with screen-appropriate stillness, and hope that the story (which rests entirely on dialogue) comes across to audiences chomping on popcorn. The result anytime someone attempts to do this is always something that feels disjointed, overdone, and simply off. Kind of like Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo and Juliet.
I actually applaud the director’s choice of intentionally making Macbeth slow and cumbersome. The film doesn’t help itself. For a span of two hours, its stays hard, creeping along like an army preparing for war.
Fassbender got beefed up for the role and descends into madness in classic Fassbender fashion, with grit teeth and perpetually drenched in sweat. Marion Cotillard has proved that she does sinister well, and she does it again. Both characters change very little, which is pretty disappointing considering that Macbeth is about how two normal people turn evil.
Without much transformation, the film leaves little room to ask the larger questions that its source material provokes: Do Macbeth and his wife turn evil as a result of their own greed, or are they pawns in a grander scheme? By hearing his own future foretold, is Macbeth responsible for his actions? The point is always made that if he had not heard the prophecies made by the three witches, he likely wouldn’t have taken the steps necessary to make them come true. Therefore is he responsible? Or is he simply a “poor player,” a plaything of God, powerless to change his fate?
Unasked, these questions linger in the credits, barely touched on before everything turns red, bathed in blood, and the screen goes dark.