Shakespeare’s story of the Scottish king Macbeth is over 400 years old, and the story it is based upon dates back a further six centuries. Thus, it is important for storytellers to bring something new to the familiar tale of corruption, power, and guilt. Fortunately, Justin Kurzel’s version starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the titular characters is up to the task of providing a fresh take. Three major departures from the bard’s text are crucial for informing this discussion: the presence of the Baby Macbeth, the characterization of the Witches and the mystical forces in general, and a re-interpretation of the famous conclusion. With these tweaks in mind, we will see how Kurzel offers a much darker and more cynical view of Macbeth than most film-makers.
The basic plot of Macbeth is fairly straight-forward, and is by far the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, coming in at nearly 1000 lines shorter than King Lear and Othello, and is barely half the length of Hamlet. The play begins with an off-stage battle between rebels and those loyal to the king, as three witches spin lyrical incantations about one of the loyalist combatants, Macbeth. When Macbeth comes upon the witches, they identify him and his buddy Banquo and deliver a prophecy: Macbeth will earn a new title and then become king, whereas Banquo will never be king but his sons will. Macbeth and Banquo laugh off the witches at first, but upon meeting with King Duncan, Macbeth earns the very title they said he would. Now injected with the ambition of becoming king, Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth hatch a plot to murder King Duncan while he visits their home. From there, Macbeth is named king, protects his throne with abject brutality, and eventually succumbs to madness and retribution from those he has wronged. All in all, it is a quick plot, but there are many peculiarities in Kurzel’s version which catch the eye.
Before we get into Kurzel’s choices, let’s draw attention to the two leads: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Both Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard deliver iconic, astounding performances. Fassbender conveys Macbeth’s descent into madness wonderfully, and we can see the guilt and paranoia slowly sprawling over his face in the latter acts. For her part, Lady Macbeth succeeds as well as she can holding up her husband, but eventually she also succumbs to her weighty deeds. Cotillard delivers Lady Macbeth’s iconic speeches well, and the thematic weight of the “out damned spot” scene is particularly haunting in this version. These two performances are the heart of the play – their interactions, relationships, and personal hardships bounce off each other masterfully, and more than any other Macbeth adaptation for the screen, there is a palpable love between the two, which only serves to heighten their tragic narrative.
These characters are given additional pathos thanks to the first major departure of Kurzel’s. At the beginning of the film, Kurzel places a scene which does not exist in the play. Instead of opening with the witches’ incantations (in a scene perfected by Polanski’s 1971 version), we are observers at the funeral of the Macbeths’ child. Baby Macbeth is not a character in the text of the play, but a child is referred to by Lady Macbeth in one of her darkest and most unsettling lines. In a moment of hesitancy, Macbeth calls off the assassination. Lady Macbeth chastises him for this, casting it as reneging on an oath that he made to her, and saying she would never do that to him:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (I.vii.55-60)
So, we clearly see that Lady Macbeth has nursed a child (and that she is either prone to hyperbole or really into keeping promises). While Shakespeare’s text only mentions the child this one time, Kurzel dwells on Baby Macbeth. This inclusion is unique and fascinating, and while it certainly doesn’t excuse the actions of the Macbeths, it does offer keen insight into the heartbreak which may fuel their lust for power. Having lost a child and unequipped to bear any more, they are the end of their lines. With little else to live for beyond their own lives, they throw docility to the wind and take harsh action to claim the throne by force. The presence of the child is felt in other sequences as well, encouraging us to remember the possible cause of all the carnage we are seeing on screen, and how a devastating loss can inform the rest of one’s life if it is allowed to.
Realistically, though, the inciting event of the play comes from the witches and their prophecies. In this version, there are five witches of all ages – from elderly woman to infant, though only three have speaking parts. Could this be a commentary on how the evil forces in the world are growing and multiplying, perhaps feeding on the deeds of mortals? There are other details involving the witches and ghosts in the play as well. In the opening battle sequence, which Kurzel actually shows, we see Macbeth preparing a young boy of perhaps 15 years for the battle. It is shown that this young boy does not survive the battle, and it comes to haunt Macbeth. This boy’s ghost is given some of the prophetic lines from the witches – and he also holds the dagger which leads Macbeth to the bed of King Duncan. Hence, it is not an ethereal dagger floating alone that draws Macbeth towards the murders – but a ghostly reminder of his promised kinghood and his past failings. These are fantastic choices, and imbue the film with a dark mysticism that feels like it is encroaching on the normal world, growing ever stronger.
There is also a unique ending to the play that re-interprets the “Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane” riddle of the witches in an intriguing and thematic way that we have not seen before. Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane as ash! This is the last of the major differences, and serves to cinematically cast the entirety of the final act in a eerie crimson light. Traditionally, Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane as the attackers camouflage themselves in the branches of the great forest. In Kurzel’s version, the woods are incinerated, and hot ash flies through the oppressively-colored air. The entirety of the last fifteen minutes of the film is colored in these sharp oranges, reds, and browns as the forest burns around Macbeth and the army that opposes him.
Here we see Kurzel taking advantage of a clever interpretation of the text to signify additional thematic elements. Obviously, the fire can symbolize such things as the hatred for Macbeth, Macbeth’s own bloodlust and passion for the throne, and other such base, animalistic emotions. But, we can also see the destruction of Dunsinane as an act of cleansing – of burning away the evil that Macbeth represents. It also indicates a kind of Pyrrhic victory for the “good guys”, as the only means they had for conquering their tyrannous lord involved destroying a portion of their home. In the standard reading of Shakespeare’s text, these themes are present but not emphasized in this closing scene by the “living forest”. But, Kurzel’s version brings these ideas center-stage, and allow for a more rich and rewarding reading of the centuries-old text. It is a wonderful marriage of style and theme that indicates expert-level cinematic storytelling and casts the entire conclusion in an uneasy feeling.
Because, though the final lines of the play are often interpreted positively, in reality Shakespeare offers Malcolm’ sing-songy recitation as a return to the same lyricism of the initial witches’ chant. Kurzel is more blunt: while the last spoken lines are “Hail, King of Scotland”, there is an additional sequence of Banquo’s son Fleance walking up to Macbeth and collecting his sword. Meanwhile, in the throne room, Malcolm (who is to become king next) leers at his crown and walks away from camera, in clear pursuit of Fleance, who occupies the same spot on the screen after a quick cut. Fleance, according to prophecy, is destined to be King, and here we see Malcolm ready to continue the tyranny of Macbeth through the same type of barbarism and based on the same attempt to intervene against destiny. Kurzel shows what Shakespeare merely hints at, and ends the film on a particularly inescapable bit of nihilism.
In a world where even the classics are being re-hashed for a new generation, it is great to see new angles and interpretations on story as iconic as Macbeth. The result is a fascinating exploration of the same timeless and profound themes of the original play. Considering a Shakespeare play is an embarrassment of thematic riches – there are hundreds if not thousands of ideas contained within these dramas, and it is the job of the storyteller to focus our minds and emphasize those themes that they consider most crucial and reverberant. If that is the criteria for a successful film adaptation of Shakespeare, then the only conclusion is that Kurzel has succeeded.
Kurzel’s adaptation of Macbeth may upset some by virtue of his peculiar inventions and tweaking of the story, but it is altogether a masterful re-imagining of the classic story. Still present are all the visceral themes of power lust, portent and determinism, corruption, madness, and the danger of losing one’s self in an ascent to the top, but each of these is augmented by powerful directorial choices by Kurzel and their successful portrayal on screen by the magnificent cast – especially Cotillard, who manages to be the most supple and caring version of Lady Macbeth I have ever seen (and thus also the most terrifying!). As of this day, I likely still default to Polanski’s masterpiece as the definitive screen version of Macbeth, but I would not be surprised if Kurzel’s interpretation transcends the 1971 film after repeated viewings and more rigorous analysis in the future. With his daring recital of The Scottish Play, Justin Kurzel has announced himself as a rare and raw talent.