Justin Kurzel’s scorched earth Macbeth

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It basically goes downhill from here.

This review is the first part of my Bardathon 2016 challenge.

Macbeth was the first play by Shakespeare that I ever read in full, so it’s probably fair to say it began my love affair with the Bard (don’t tell Anne Hathaway). The classic tale of an overreaching nobleman whose ambition costs him everything has been adapted, reimagined and sometimes just plain copied – I’m sure Shakespeare wouldn’t have minded; he did exactly the same thing himself. But while it’s often been imitated, Macbeth has never really been bettered.

That’s been true of its film adaptations too. I’ve never seen a Macbeth that did justice to its source material (disclosure: I haven’t seen Throne of Blood yet but I plan to review it eventually). The closest was Roman Polanski’s version, but that is hard to take seriously when it seems the most important theme is boobs. Fortunately, in Justin Kurzel’s adaptation, we might just have a Macbeth worthy of the play.

It’s not exactly a postcard-worthy advert for Scotland. Everything takes place on foggy heaths, in bare stone castles or in sparse, thrown-together tents. When Great Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane – a prophecy fulfilled in Shakespeare when Macduff and Malcolm’s troops use tree branches as camouflage – Kurzel has the army torch the whole forest. The ashes are blown to the castle on the wind. It’s that bleak.

One of the play’s most interesting tropes is the symbolism of nature, and the idea that the landscape declines with its leader. It makes sense within the political philosophy of the time: the pervasive concept of “the King’s Two Bodies” stipulated that a monarch consisted of a body natural (his physical form) and the “body politic”, which represented all of his subjects and the state as a whole. Thus, the physical and mental condition of the king himself reflect the overall state of the realm.

For me, the return of Birnam Wood has therefore always represented the return of nature and natural beauty in an era of good governance and just rule. With Malcolm proclaimed king and Fleance alive and happy, the play follows the convention of so many other Renaissance tragedies by establishing a new status quo. The future of the state seems stable and positive.

Kurzel takes a different approach. The land has been bleak and inhospitable since the very first scene. This is not a state where people are content – which makes sense, because it gives the thane of Cawdor a better reason to have turned on his king in the first place. When Birnam Wood goes up in flames, it does reflect the rage and tumult at the heart of Macbeth’s reign, but it also suggests that Malcolm and Macduff aren’t the safest pairs of hands. The whole state is stuck in an endless spiral of death, killing and misery. And that is why young Fleance is still running. He’s still a political threat. He just has a new king to worry.

The state may have been in rough shape before the film started, but Macbeth and his wife are given a very clear origin story. Their child, referred to but never seen in the play, is the fountainhead of their sorrow and psychosis as the play opens with his funeral. Bereft, the parents stand side by side in their grief, and the whole narrative is given a completely new context: the Macbeths are still mourning, and their ambitions become an alternative to parenthood that fill the hole in their lives.

Kurzel handles that grief very well. The great scene where Macbeth tells his wife Banquo and Fleance must die simmers with rage and jealousy – Macbeth hating the idea that he should win the throne for another man’s bloodline, holding his dagger at his wife’s empty womb and hinting at deep-held resentment. With Fleance as much as with Macduff’s family, there’s a sense that if Macbeth can’t have an heir, neither can anyone else.

It’s the prevalence of children that ties all of this in with Kurzel’s removal of nature from Macbeth: the childlessness of the King and Queen is reflected in the barrenness of their land, a trope recycled from Richard II and born from the very real anxieties both of the time in which they were set, and the “Golden Age” of the ageing “Virgin Queen” in which they were written. The killing of what nature is left as Birnam Wood is burnt suggests that Scotland won’t become a safer place for children anytime soon.

To Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the world was dead and barren from the moment they lost their child. Even this isn’t really enough to make them sympathetic characters. Michael Fassbender is a fascinating Macbeth. You can’t take your eyes off him, even though he actually seems to have the same facial expression all the way through.

He reminded me of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Nicholson looks crazy right from the start, and in many ways it feels like Jack Torrance brought his demons with him rather than falling victim to the ghosts of The Overlook – a departure from the book with which both Stephen King and I have a major problem. Fassbender is also a bit off before he meets the witches, and long before he sees his wife. When he first meets Duncan he seems to be sizing him up from the outset. He isn’t tempted by outside forces quite so much as it has felt in some interpretations – it seems he started going crazy at the death of his son, a situation  exacerbated by the trauma of the battle and the death of the lad he treats as a surrogate. His conscience prickles for a while, but is easily quelled by his wife.

Marion Cotillard was born for Lady Macbeth. She moves between genuine grief and steely resolve with a level of grace that almost takes you by surprise. As she eventually realises what a monster her husband has become and how far beyond her influence he has travelled, the remorse and the horror are palpable.

However, in the end the famous “Out, damned spot” soliloquy actually feels like a bit of a let-down. Perhaps as an audience we’re conditioned to expect certain things from well-known material, but I wanted to see her hands at least once while she was talking about whether they’d ever be clean. It’s a very restrained, controlled performance, but Kurzel makes the scene less about a woman coming to terms with her guilt and more about a woman lost in nostalgia for a simpler time when her son was still alive and her husband wasn’t psychotic.

It’s worth pointing out that the film is brilliantly and beautifully shot – the landscapes are astonishing and bleak has probably never looked this good. It’s heavy on its red and black colour scheme, too – the colours of death, blood and the night, fire and ashes. Scorched earth policy, indeed.

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