In a way, this is hard. There is no denying that this film was absolutely gorgeous to look at. Fassbender and Cotillard are beautiful, of course, and the rest of the cast, if not beautiful, has a great deal of character. Almost every frame of the thing could be framed and hung as artwork.

And whatever else I’m about to say, whatever it did to the original text, I have to be pleased about the fact that this version that pointed something up: Macbeth killed men with sons. Of course, in this version it is inserted that the Macbeths lost a son just before the tale began, a toddler; and though he is not listed as such in the credits and of course nothing is said, it certainly seems as though the featured boy soldier going into battle at the beginning was another son, killed in battle.

And then when it comes time for Duncan to designate an heir, he favors his own son. A little while later Duncan is dead. (Well, in the play that’s what happens. I’ll come back to that.)

And then the second round of prophecies from the witches lets him know that while Macbeth is the first and last of his line, Banquo’s son will be the root of a whole line of kings. And a little while later Banquo is dead, his son narrowly escaping. Which ruins Maccers’s night.

And then, being on a roll, he goes after Macduff – too late; he’s fled to England. But you know what Macduff has? At least one son. While Macduff escapes his wrath, the family does not, and the whole family goes to the sword – or, in this case, to my shock and awe, the stake. As in burned. By Macbeth. Personally.

Usually the line “He has no children”, from the scene in which Macduff learns the fate of his wife and children, is directed to refer to Rosse, if that’s who delivered the news, or Malcolm – Rosse: “Buck up, man!” Macduff: “Well, clearly, he has no children, to be able to say something so stupid”. Here, though, it seems to refer to Macbeth, and could mean all sorts of things. He has no sons… He has no heir; he hates anyone who does have sons; he wants to destroy those who have what he no longer does.

So that was actually pretty good.

And … that’s it.

My first brow–wrinkler with this film was the whispered dialogue. Every line, except for shouts in the midst of battle, was uttered so sotto voce that it was often simply hard to make out. “Turn, hell hound” was simply spoken – and if there’s a line that deserves a delivery from the diaphragm it’s that one. Even “Ring the alarum bell” was whispered.

Hard on the heels of that puzzler was another: there weren’t three witches, but four (or three and a half, depending on how you look at it. Or maybe three and three quarters). It looked like it might have been meant to be Maiden, Mother, and Crone, or something of the sort; there was a young ginger who didn’t get too many lines, a young blonde who did, and an older woman who bogarted most of the rest of the dialogue. And then there was a little girl. There was a note on the Amazon stream that the producers liked her so much they made her a fourth witch. Because why not. (One of the adults also carried a baby. So 3 & 3/4. Because why not.)

I didn’t follow along with the play to see exactly what was excised, but there were obvious gaps all throughout, whether just a line or a whole chunk of dialogue. Some lines were shifted either in time and place or from one speaker to another. Oh, and speaking of that shifting in time and place, not to mention excision, something that took a minute to register sank this film irrevocably: the Macbeths formulate the plan to kill Duncan BEFORE he declares his heir. Or she does, at least, and lays it out before him when he gets home. It’s at a party that night that the heir is declared. Which makes no sense. There was no guarantee under Scottish law that Duncan would not choose the hero of the moment, his victorious general and kinsman Macbeth. In fact, some of the dialogue (which may or may not have survived in this movie) makes it seem very possible: Duncan plans to richly reward Macbeth for his good service. (I would love to see a production in which Duncan practically dangles the crown in front of Macbeth, only to whisk it out of reach – not with malicious intent, because that would dilute the murder (it’s more powerful if Duncan was the good old man he’s described as), but kind of obliviously.)

“What beast was’t then that broke this enterprise to me?” But he didn’t. She seems to have leaped straight to “KILL THE KING” independently.

Marion Cotillard’s madness came across very well, and in a rather unique way – the sleepwalking scene is all in her memory. Which is not all very well. There is no sleeping, no walking, no witness, no hand–wringing … and I only give this a pass because it works in context, and it only works because Cotillard is kind of awesome and convinces the viewer that she is seeing it all play out again before her. (Which was almost ruined by the fact that suddenly her dead toddler is sitting in front of her, perky and adorable. Yes, thanks, I get it.) If I didn’t know how it was supposed to be, it might be fine.

There are other questionable moments – Malcolm’s horse was ready saddled when he fled after the king’s murder? (It’s just him – Donalbain is excised, which makes a certain amount of sense.) The Macduffs just up and leave the haunted banquet? Frankly the whole final battle between Macbeth and Macduff was … off, at best. In the midst of it, it looks like Macbeth breaks Macduff’s arm, and it’s one of the most unintentionally funny moments I’ve seen in a while. And in the end Macbeth keeps his head. Arguably the two most iconic images of the play, Lady Macbeth wringing her hands as she sleepwalks and Macduff holding up the head of Macbeth while hailing Malcolm king of Scotland – – gone.

In short (heh): it’s so very pretty. But it makes less sense than it should in and of itself, and as a production of a Shakespeare play it makes a kind of miserable CliffNotes.

But the very worst thing about the movie was something I found out after I watched it but before I finished this. Worse even than the language dilution; worse even than the extra witch; worse even than the sedentary sleepwalking scene … because of this film’s release the primary source of funds for Enemy of Man, the version of Macbeth to star Sean Bean and a geek’s paradise of other actors, backed out, with the incredibly weak tea reasoning that two Macbeths within a – what, two-year span? would be one too many. I kind of hate this film.

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3 Responses to Macbeth

  1. ThemisAthena says:

    My feelings about this movie exactly — and very well put, too. (I think when I left the cinema I said something along the lines of, “Oh no … Hollywood tries to do Shakespeare again, and gets it as wrong as you possibly can.”

    Need I mention that the outdoor scenes were in their majority shot on Skye (a few 100 miles from where the action is actually supposed to be taking place, and contrary to what this movie wants to make you believe, Scotland most certainly does NOT look the same everywhere), and the indoor “castle” scenes were shot at Bamburgh Castle, which isn’t even in Scotland to begin with but in Northumberland? (As if Scotland weren’t full of castles to begin with and would have been able to offer plenty of great locations, *even if* they didn’t want to, or weren’t allowed use either of Macbeth’s actual castles … Glamis and Cawdor?!)

  2. stewartry says:

    I didn’t think of the setting, other than that it was gorgeous – and, apparently, neither did the producers. But, yeah – it’s not like it takes place in Illyria: there really is a Glamis and a Cawdor.

    I really hope the Enemy of Man version is more thoughtful. It’d better be.

  3. ThemisAthena says:

    Yes — they better not screw up again … with another major star, to boot!

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