Putting Scotland back in the Scottish Play.
Screen Cinema and Cineworld, dates vary
Some excellent screen adaptations of Macbeth – think Throne of Blood or the National Theatre’s 2011 production – have transported the action away from the highlands, to feudal Japan or a crumbling quasi-soviet environment, as if there’s nothing inherently Scottish about ‘The Scottish Play’. It’s interesting, therefore, to see how director Justin Kurzel has made his take on the play more obviously and viscerally Scottish than a traditional stage production would even allow.
Sweeping, rugged vistas are just as prominent on screen as Micheal Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles. Battles are rendered as clannish blood-feuds. A weird blend of Christian and pagan symbols pervade religious life, making Christian morality and belief in witches reconcilable. Any character of consequence and experience has the scars you would expect from years of constant warfare. This is medieval Scotland, as faithfully and comprehensively rendered as you have ever seen it before.
Kurzel also uses the form to take certain liberties with the play, filling in parts of the story that the source material leaves blank. The Macbeths’ childlessness is given a tragic back-story in a long, largely silent, opening sequence. The escape of Fleance is made more believable by supernatural intervention. And we see the precise moment where Lady Macbeth realises that her husband has become a monster. With a less subtle director, or less refined performances, it is easy to imagine such exposition being patronising and clunky. Rendering so much through wordless exchanges, though, turns one of Shakespeare’s sparser plays into an intense, rich visual feast.
Rich feasts are often tough to sit through, and this adaptation of Macbeth is no exception. It tests an audience’s endurance more than the running time of 113 minutes would suggest, and loses some of the refreshing pace that other productions offer. Both my companion and I felt the film palpably sag, albeit at different points (she tired of the long introduction, I found that Lady Macbeth’s final monologue lost dramatic power through over-egging). The approach will test an audience’s patience, but also reward it: Macbeth’s final confrontation with his enemies takes place against a background that thrillingly evokes his own hell. That climax is made all the more enthralling by the casting of Sean Harris as Macduff. In his understated menace, he embodies the relatable man turned avenging angel by experience, without overshadowing Fassbender or Cotillard. Both of them are as strong as you would expect, which is saying rather a lot.
A patient audience will enjoy this visually luscious but heavy take on a traditionally action packed play. By setting the wilderness and atmosphere of medieval Scotland to the fore, Kurzel has made Macbeth into a more complete and atmospheric tale than we’re used to. The fact the we must forgo – or at least defer – some of the piece’s thrills seems a fair price to pay.