Justin Kurzel’s new film adaptation of Macbeth benefits from gorgeous cinematography and a highly effective—even overpowering—soundtrack. The scenery and costumes are luscious without seeming showy, and the whole production moves along at a neat clip, clocking in at just over one hundred minutes.
Yet something’s missing. Not only did Kurzel cut down much of Shakespeare’s script in order to fit the shortened running time, but the movie sacrifices a good deal of emotional depth, as well. Macbeth’s fall from grace, a fall that is supposed to be so spectacular and so precipitous that it constitutes the central tragedy of the play, seems in this production to be more a process of slow-motion atrophy. Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, emotionally vacant and wracked by post-war trauma, is a broken man from the start. This means his eventual defeat, when it comes, is not so much a tragedy as a welcome relief befitting a sick and deranged soul.
And though played ably, even hauntingly, by Marion Cotillard, Lady Macbeth is here an underutilized asset, a set piece next to the film’s obsessive focus on the Thane of Cawdor himself. This is particularly unfortunate, since the play is as much a story of how the dynamics of evil exhibit themselves in Lady Macbeth as how they do—albeit in very different ways—in her husband. Cotillard’s version of the sleepwalking soliloquy is masterful and innovative, but it is the only real moment in the film that her performance is allowed to shine through; and her subsequent death elicits from Fassbender’s Macbeth a flat and brittle “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
Kurzel even robs us of the victorious restoration of order upon Malcolm’s return, opting instead for a morally ambiguous ending that emphasizes the bloody futility of life. Thus the play that Harry Jaffa called a “moral play par excellence” becomes a fatalistic noir, even if a beautifully produced and captivating one.
There is one change in this production, however, which actually works quite well. The Weird Sisters appear here as a multi-generational coven, spanning in the three principal members roughly six decades. The women first enter accompanied by an adolescent girl and later in the film, in an understated yet remarkable detail, they are seen with a baby whom they carry and nurse. The presence of the younger sisters is all the more noteworthy by way of contrast: the movie opens with the Macbeths preparing their just-dead child for the pyre; for his battle against Macdonwald, Macbeth enlists a squad of teenage soldiers, all of whom die; Macduff’s children are burnt at the stake by Macbeth; and Fleance, though he escapes his would-be assassins, becomes a victim to an endless cycle of violence. While the mortal children around them die and suffer, these sisters find a way to grow their ranks.
But even still these are not the cackling, conjuring ghouls of, for instance, the 1948 Orson Welles production, but dead-eyed, soft-spoken waifs pronouncing visions of what could be. They do not impose themselves upon Macbeth with spells and parlor tricks, but appear to him in still, quiet moments, ready with vague words of promise.
All these details suggest most vividly the generative power of evil, most especially that evil which grows by subtle suggestion. This sort of evil propagates itself, and continues on to “the last syllable of recorded time;” it manages to “o’erleap itself” without stumbling. As long, that is, as it finds an audience. One notes that these Weird Sisters only acquire their new member as Macbeth proves true each of their successive predictions. The easily abused tension in Shakespeare’s play between the supernatural mechanisms of destiny that the sisters represent and the free choices that Macbeth makes in response to their prophesizing is nicely navigated here. It’s true that these are creatures of unholy power, but Macbeth is the one who embraces their nightmare vision, and for that the sin lies with him.
It is a strong moral warning: As we struggle through life, sensitive to the rhythms of grace and temptation, let us not play midwife to the new birth of evil, which only needs a listening ear to prove effective.
Travis LaCouter is studying theology at Oxford University