Macbeth’s bold vision is hamstrung by adaptation mechanics

macbeth marion cotillard lady macbethI’m a sucker for Shakespearean adaptations, but I’m also routinely disappointed by them.  Too often the stage is merely exchanged for generic castle interiors, the actors trip over the lines, and the director focuses far too much on what’s “timeless” rather than the actual plot (perfectly captured in an Onion article entitled “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play In Time, Place Shakespeare Intended“).

This isn’t the case with Justin Kurzel’s bold new version of Macbeth.  He ditches the political aspects altogether, bends the psychological to be less harried marriage and more PTSD, and amps up the violence to stunning effect.  Unfortunately, some of the nuts and bolts of adapting Shakespeare trip him up along the way.

Kurzel’s vision can be summed up in two words: primal and brutal.  A new, wordless prologue shows Macbeth and his wife burying their dead child in a pagan-like ritual.  The three witches that appear are made deeply unsettling by the addition of a fourth and fifth child and infant witch, echoing the pagan overtones and the dead child of the opening scenes.  Macbeth doesn’t live in a castle but rather a miserable village that appears barely capable of providing food and shelter.  Even the village church is decorated with proto-Dantean murals of demons devouring babies.  (Shout out to production designer Fiona Crombie for layering such meaning into the film with simple location work.  It’s a credit to her work in the church – pictured above – that Kurzel sets so many key scenes there.)  This is a world where death is close at hand.

And death is routinely meted out through brutal violence.  Kurzel and screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso are smart to move much of Macbeth’s violence from off stage to on: Macbeth’s early victory is won at the cost of most of his teenaged army, Duncan’s murder is anything but bloodless, and the burning of Macduff’s family at the stake is only slightly easier to watch than a similar scene on last season’s Game of Thrones.  Thus, when Macbeth, Macduff, and Banquo discuss succession, it feels less like politics and more like survival (the fact that all three look convincingly battle-hardened helps).  All of these things make Macbeth’s subsequent unraveling convincing.  Rather than a good man tempted by his ambitious wife, Kurzel’s Macbeth is a scarred man whose grip on action and consequence is slowly slipping.  When he says “I feel like my mind is full of scorpions,” you believe it, especially after the things he’s seen and done.

So far, so good.  But Kurzel’s inexperience with Shakespeare undercuts these promising choices.  Adapting Shakespeare is a challenge – you can’t add anything new, and a lot of his dialogue is incredibly expository.  But unless you’re going to SHOW why the characters are acting a certain way, you need to have them TELL why.  Otherwise, as in the case of Banquo’s flight, scenes appear to pick up in medias res.  If I hadn’t been familiar with the play’s plot points, I’m not sure I could have followed along.

The sound design is confusing as well, with the acoustics changing during several speeches, making it unclear if the lines are being spoken aloud or are some sort of internal monologue.  Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger which I see before me” and “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” both suffer from this odd choice (although dim lighting and Michael Fassbender’s tight-lipped delivery don’t help, something definitely changes in the latter, starting at “out, out, brief candle”).  Presenting a Shakespearean soliloquy on screen as believable dialogue is challenging, but making part or all of it internal is a slight cop out.

Finally, Marion Cotillard is an extremely talented actress, but English is not her first language and performing Shakespeare makes that apparent.  She does her best, but her pronunciation and cadence are off just enough to make some of her dialogue unintelligible.

I feel most of these issues could have been handled by someone on the production with more experience in adapting Shakespeare.  In Much Ado About Nothing, writer/director Kenneth Branagh maintains the narrative thread despite large cuts, manages to integrate its songs into the story, and chooses his cast wisely – save Keanu Reeves perhaps, but Branagh even manages to coax a tolerable performance out of him.  Contrast this with Oliver Parker’s Othello, where the over-simplification of the plot and the presence of another French actress lead to some of the same issues.

It’s too bad.  With a little more experience, or a steadier hand somewhere in production, Kurzel might have had the definitive Macbeth on his hands.  As it is, he’s got the Macbeth with the best visuals and most potential.

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