Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth falls short in exploring the true depths of ‘black and deep desires’.By Christos Tsiolkas.
Michael Fassbender in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth
Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is a bold and visually dynamic adaptation of the play, setting the doomed king’s story in the historically apt 11th century and making full use of the dark but luminous palette of hues and light allowed by shooting in the Scottish Highlands.
The film is best in the early battle sequences, before Macbeth has begun his bloody ascent to the throne and where his display of fearlessness and brute strength seems truly heroic. Michael Fassbender, in the title role, is also at his best in these early scenes: with his sinewy body and his feline movements, and with that submerged rage that always seems apposite to his persona, he appears perfectly cast to convey the tragedy of a powerful man who can command armies and loyalty but cannot control the full force of his own lust for power. Kurzel has the confidence as a director to acknowledge past film versions of the play – the carnage and fierceness of the battles nod to Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth, and in their balletic grace to Akira Kurosawa’s sublime adaptation from 1957, Throne of Blood – but he makes these scenes his own with the vividness of the imagery and the judicial use of slow-motion and jarring abrupt cuts. The close-ups of death, of life extinguished from youth, have real potency, as do the mirroring close-ups of the furious and terrified faces of the young men doing the killing. There was more gore in the Polanski adaptation but this version is more kinetic, more fierce.
The unrelenting dynamism of these early scenes prepared me for a lusty and gripping retelling of Shakespeare. But as soon as we leave the site of war, the energy quickly dissipates. The actors seem confined and burdened by the gloomy interiors of the barracks or the cold, empty spaces of the Scottish royal courts. The performances seem stilted, at times almost self-consciously so.
I think this self-consciousness is a result of a lack of clarity from the director and the writers in the conceiving of what they wanted from the adaptation. There is an evident tension between wanting to be faithful to the reality of the historical Macbeth and a desire to respect the theatricality of the original Shakespeare. Kurzel is at his best in the war scenes, and in conveying the harshness of mediaeval life, but the doomed human tragedy of Macbeth eludes him.
It is clear from the history of cinema that adaptation of Shakespeare need not be faithful to the narrative or even respect the playwright’s language to be successful. He is arguably the most universal writer to have lived, and his words and characters have become part of our global culture. Kurosawa’s version certainly wasn’t faithful to the play, taking place in feudal Japan, but Throne of Blood had Toshirô Mifune as Macbeth and Isuzu Yamada as Lady Macbeth, both giving frightening, thrilling performances where the couple’s thirst for one another, their love and obsession, made them almost mad in their disregard for others. It has been a long time since I last saw the film but moments of Mifune’s and Yamada’s intensity can still haunt my dreams. A Shakespeare adaption can experiment and play with time, with space; it can change the Bard’s words into a contemporary idiom or into an argot suitable to genre; but it can’t neglect the centrality of performance.
Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, who plays Lady Macbeth in this version, are forceful actors, and both are expert in conveying intimacy with minimal gesture. The supporting cast is expert, too, including the always wonderful Paddy Considine as Banquo. But there is never a moment when the actors are truly lost in their roles, when we believe in the couple’s ruthlessness or in their desire for one another. Given Kurzel is clearly not interested in making a stylised theatrical version of Macbeth, the actors are unmoored from any contemporary psychological realism but are also forbidden the space for grand theatricality: it is no wonder they seem constricted and stilted. Their actions lack conviction and this undermines any sense of tragedy. Partly this is due to the jarring use of jump cut in scenes where we want to see the cast build momentum, when we hope to hear those now familiar soliloquies rendered anew by the passion of an actor. The jittery editing kills Fassbender’s performance. It is telling that the one scene that has real dramatic power is when Cotillard conveys Lady Macbeth’s slip into madness – What, will my hands never be clean? – and that for almost its entirety the scene is played in stillness.
It is possible that for all his undisputed talents as a filmmaker, his clear cinematic literacy, there is a humourlessness in Kurzel’s work that betrays both the performers and the tragedy of the play. We do not feel the erotic charge in the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; we are not given even a moment to experience any glee in their lusts and thirsts. Of course, the over-determination of fate is embedded in the story by the framing device of the prophecies from the three witches. The play’s great, still-threatening power emerges from our knowing that at any point the exertion of individual will, the making of a justified moral choice, would have undone the fatalism. But in this version, the king and queen are merely pawns.
It may seem a strange accusation to level at a tragedy, that it is humourless, but the wily strength in Shakespeare’s original is his creation of the libidinous couple. Though I think Kurzel’s version is better than Polanski’s, which suffered from the director’s lack of interest in the performers, that director does understand perversity and he communicated it to the audience. We became complicit with the Macbeths, we were not afforded a distance from their desires.
Kurzel’s first feature, Snowtown, also suffered from his unwillingness to fully commit to the perversity of the tale he wants to tell. Like Macbeth, the film had a terrific look, the banality and ugliness of outer Australian suburbia rendered in a lysergic desert light. But instead of playing the true story of a sociopathic killing spree as black comedy, a contemporary outré version of, say, Wake in Fright, accentuating the absurdity and instability of extreme Aussie masculinity, Kurzel vacillated between minimalist horror and social realism, and my engagement in that film also rapidly dissipated. The stupid thugs at the centre of the narrative never indicated any emotion beyond the infantile, and being asked to take their self-serving and unrepentant versions of the events as truth was an impossible ask. My brain felt scoured – emptied – by the moral idiocy of both the characters and the filmmaker’s approach to them.
Kurzel’s fascination with the perverse extremes of cruelty and violence is puzzling, and the indication in both films is that he doesn’t understand it, that he is unable to fully commit to bringing us close to the roots from which that wickedness might emerge. The image of the child recurs in his Macbeth, the child experiencing the loss of a parent but also the reverse, the trauma of the parent burying the child. The film opens and closes with scenes suggestive of these ancient, universal outrages, and in these moments the film comes closest to being imbued with the truly tragic, with that which shatters a character’s self. In these moments, we glimpse Kurzel being fully adult. I think the elemental, the humane, is what truly interests him. He doesn’t have the stomach for his monsters.
It is such a frustrating mishap, as this Macbeth had the potential to be electrifying in its visual energy, with the combined talents of its collaborators. But the filmmakers take the witches at their word; they reduce their heroes to puppets. There is nothing of tragedy in this film.
CIRCUS Carnival of the Animals
Arts Centre , Melbourne, September 28-October 4
CULTURE Asiafest 2015
Rymill Park, Adelaide, October 2-11
THEATRE Ride & Fourplay
Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, Sydney, until October 4
MULTIMEDIA Art for the Company
Goodspace, Chippendale, Sydney, October 2-4
PHOTOGRAPHY Gallipoli Then & Now: Bonds Forged By War
Customs House Library, Sydney, ends September 30
CINEMA Wild in the Streets film series
Domain Theatre, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until September 30
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "False heart". Subscribe here.