The weird sisters in Macbeth are never delicate in their cooking. Only in Roman Polanski’s film adaptation of 1971 do they take pains over the hell-broth, though the lingering shots might have something to do with their nakedness (the film was produced by Hugh Hefner) as opposed to their collective Julia Child tendencies. While the witches go about their business, the eye of newt and the toe of frog appear fresh from that morning’s market, while the wool of bat and tongue of dog are dropped into the brew with the kind of culinary panache that would, one suspects, make the hags quite welcome on the Food Channel. One ought to remember that in Shakespeare’s time, as Dr. Johnson reminds us, it was not merely impolite but a criminal act not to believe in witches, and any production of the play worth its salt—or its root of hemlock—must cleave to the diabolical, allowing human motivation to be lost and found in the mists of enchantment.
In 1599, James VI of Scotland—soon to be James I of England—published his book Daemonologie. Not only had the king been a witness to the North Berwick witch trials less than a decade before, but he had interrogated several of the East Lothian residents who were indicted, before seeing them tortured until they confessed, then executed at Edinburgh Castle. In 1606, when Shakespeare is believed to have written the play, witchcraft was in the air, and so was regicide—the Gunpowder Plot had been foiled only months before, and it was less than twenty years since the beheading of James’s mother, Mary, Queen of Scots.
And yet film productions of Macbeth have tended not to linger on the magic, with directors more interested in getting down to the hurly-burly of real-time ambition and bloodletting. Polanski’s witches, as was noted at the time, were a kind of Manson family manqué, it being only two years since the murder in Beverly Hills of the director’s pregnant wife, along with some of their friends. The violence in that film seems meaningless. But the violence in the play is always there to excite what A.C. Bradley called “supernatural alarm”: monarchs and children and loyal swains are murdered for their goodness, or for revenge, or due to the exigency of “vaulting ambition,” but Shakespeare was rigorous in his animation of a universe where fate and prediction are cooked up by spirits, the kinds of spirits who tend to come alive in the dark hollows of the human mind.
The newest Macbeth adaptation to reach the screen is directed by Justin Kurzel, a man who believes in mists but doesn’t believe in ghosts. This is a fair predicament, except that we quickly learn that Kurzel wants Macbeth to be a love story, when some of us have grown up thinking it the greatest hate story ever written. Is it for love of her husband that Lady Macbeth bends Macbeth’s mind out of shape and presses him to murder a king who has just covered them in glory? Is it love for his wife that steals Macbeth’s decency, his humanity, his loyalty, and turns him into a serial killer? If so, it is a play not merely about valiance thwarted by love, or of virtue obliterated by sex, but a drama of how obedience to the workings of infatuation can drive you mad. This might have been considered an ample theme for a genius, but I’m afraid, when Kurzel told an audience at the Cannes Film Festival last May that this is “a beautiful, tragic love story,” he meant that it is a film about a pair of star-crossed lovers hitting a bit of a rough patch.
Is this a self-help text I see before me? Were it not for the outdoorsy setting and the bleak ending, Kurzel’s film could be an addendum to Chicken Soup for the Soul. I mean, every thane has his reasons, right? Everybody has that little something they just can’t talk about. Call it private pain. And this is a film about two people who do what they do because, let’s face it, they are suffering. (Or perhaps it takes its cue from Oprah: “We’re all ashamed, right? The thing with Macduff’s children wasn’t handled that well, but, hey, sometimes people just fail to communicate. That’s life. That’s part of life. Try to see past the hurt and look at the things that made you, well—you! How did you get here? And how did your partner get here? Because she’s hurting too!”)
It is Scotland in the year 1040. In a beautiful, deep glen surrounded by peaks and swirling mist, we open on a dead baby lying in the heather. Kneeling before the baby is its weeping mother, Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard), whose brave husband steps forward to put weathered coins on the child’s eyes. The witches, when we meet them, are like ordinary girls, speaking their lines conversationally, as if telling us the way to Inverness. Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) is soon on the battlefield, covered in blue wode, doing his best for king and country, with the worthy Banquo (Paddy Considine) at his side. They both come home to glory and Macbeth continues to the family tent, to receive his curse. His wife is a grieving person who wants to cause more grief, and soon, so does he. Cotillard plays it for softness and for pity: who could not feel for a woman so suddenly childless? Meanwhile, Fassbender speaks post-traumatically and sufferingly throughout. “We are not evil,” their eyes say. And that is the hallmark of the film: the characters are shown not only to be in pain, but are being torn apart by an ill fortune beyond their control.
The film has self-pity in abundance, but no poetry. Fassbender in particular has no feel for the rhythm, the music, or the flexibility of Shakespeare’s verse, tending to run his lines together as if it was all just antic prose. Perhaps subconsciously, he puts pressure on the lines to express constant anguish as opposed to malice aforethought. When he tells his wife, before killing Duncan, “We shall proceed no further in this business,” it is not a line that springs from his having seen the folly of the idea, or from an upsurge of common decency suddenly mocking his crazed ambition. It comes, rather, like a weak underscoring of his own pitiable condition in life. Fassbender gives Macbeth less than his due mindfulness, and it flattens everything he says into a kind of whine. He has the inevitable flashbacks to the battle scenes and looks wan with the need to think. When he approaches Duncan’s bed to kill him, he trails his own put-upon condition into the tent. Shakespeare shows us none of this, but the film glories in the knife frenzy.
The language is everything, but it’s worth remembering that Akira Kurosawa made a film masterpiece without it, knowing that the sublime problems of character could survive the translation. Throne of Blood (1957) is set in sixteenth-century Japan, and Asaji—the Lady Macbeth figure—counsels treason with a Kabuki face. “You must strike first if you do not wish to be killed,” she says. “Without ambition a man is not a man.” There is nothing of the mighty pentameter in this, yet it does the job, because Kurosawa’s tragedy evokes by silence and by the rhythm of his shots the interior danse macabre.
The new Macbeth is like a great many cinema adaptations of recent years: it glosses Shakespeare and makes a play of the less difficult lines and images, and generally it Shakespearianizes the talk, but it often fails to realize the subtleties that drive the characters. For instance, in Act 2, Scene 3 of the play, when the castle is in an uproar at the discovery of Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth assumes a shocked disposition at the news. “What, in our house?” she says. Banquo hears the line for what it is, a selfish, subtly inappropriate remark at the death of the monarch. “Too cruel any where,” he replies.
In that moment, Lady Macbeth shows the true scale of her depravity, not merely by pretending she didn’t know how the king came to be murdered—in the gruesome depth of her feigning she reveals her vanity too. In his notes on the play, the eighteenth-century churchman and critic William Warburton fixes on this moment. “This is very fine,” he says.
Had she been innocent, nothing but the murder itself, and not any of its aggravating circumstances, would naturally have affected her. As it was, her business was to appear highly disordered at the news. Therefore, like one who has her thoughts about her, she seeks for an aggravating circumstance, that might be supposed to affect her personally; not considering, that by placing it there, she discovered rather a concern for herself than for the king.
Meanwhile, her husband is genuinely “laboring under the horrors of the recent murder,” and his anguish and sorrow, on that account alone, seem genuine to the audience. Kurzel’s film cuts the lines entirely and instead we linger awhile longer among the gore.* Fassbender and Cotillard are united in self-pity and in sexual attraction—which is what a cinema audience wants for its nickel—but at no point might we gasp at the immoral chasm they are opening up around themselves.
Shakespeare is always various, always invested in two-mindedness, and never knowingly blunt in showing his characters’ motivations. Yet films often are, and arguably they must be in order to pull in today’s audience. Kurzel’s film therefore invests deeply in atmospherics and in the mechanics of brutality—a brew of clichés lifted from historical dramas and Game of Thrones—while avoiding the psychological infiltrations that make the play so great. The urge in the film is always toward a modern explanation of what makes good people do bad things, thus the post-traumatic stress disorder, thus the feelingful depictions of Lady Macbeth with her lost child. We see her weep while her husband burns Macduff’s children at the stake, but not for any evil she has done, or even at any evil Macbeth is doing now. We must assume that the water in Cotillard’s eyes is prompted by the innocent state of children generally and the memory of her own dear child.
When she sits alone in her tent and rubs her hands, saying “out, damned spot,” it is not the famous sleepwalking scene anymore, not a scene where she is haunted by the blood on her hands and by the scale of her murderous intent, but is now a mourning scene where she is raised out of calumny into a blameless suffering, an apparition of her dead baby suddenly appearing before her on the bare ground. This is not modern ethics, necessarily, but it is modern storytelling, in which characters must be more “likable” or “sympathetic” in order to be real to us, or to matter. The unknowability of evil is dimmed in the candle-glow of a generalized empathy in which none of us is truly guilty. Troubled veterans and grieving women beware: your ambition may be ugly, but it is merely evidence of a virtuous nature that has learned how to suffer.
Macbeth is the tragedy of a brave man’s relapse into the worst parts of his nature, a program for death so personal and so uncanny that only the supernatural could countenance it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge caught it the right way when he said that “Macbeth’s language is the grave utterance of the very heart, conscience-sick, even to the last faintings of moral death.” There is no hope for Macbeth once it has started, and the play animates the many deaths of him and his queen with steady grace and terrible plausibility. Even Orson Welles, in his otherwise shrill, pantomimic film of 1948, appeared to know from the start that he was dealing with walking shadows, men and women who drain all blood and all goodness away in the attempt to be more than that. The present film knows nothing of the sort, but it puts itself in line with a contemporary assumption that water is thicker than blood, that redemption is larger than death, that effort is greater than deed, and that behind every bad person is a good person crying to get out, a beautiful self behind the blades who is merely in need of some help.
In Polanski’s film of the play, Francesca Annis, as Lady Macbeth, speaks the line beautifully, like a housewife who cares more for her reputation as the keeper of a clean house than that an anointed king has just been stabbed to death. ↩