We know that Lady Macbeth has had one child or more, or at least has breastfed. Marion Cotillard, as the Thane’s wife, utters the indicative speech in a small, cold, dimly lit church building with the even tone of one speaking in her sleep, in Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, and moves quickly onward to the kind of vicious talk that is closer in tone to the film’s median:
“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’ve always thought that Macbeth was her second husband, and she’d lost her first along with the child she speaks of. Kurzel seems to have taken it as meaning that the Macbeths had had a child together who, since he or she is nowhere to be found during the action, died before the play begins. This infant’s grey corpse fills the screen in the first shot of the film, and marks all that follows in the actions of Macbeth and his Lady with an entirely comprehensible sense of grief.
Such a move is no error in itself, and when adapting Shakespeare – or any literary source, for that matter – for the screen, a director is meant to take self-asserting action, to reign the source material into the pen of his vision for his work. Kurzel does this with cutting and moving parts of the text, departures from convention in his sets and performances, and his motif of slain children, strewn throughout the movie, presumably to echo the loss of the Macbeths’ child. The problem here is that with his radical revisions, Kurzel all but leaves behind Shakespeare and the life with which he infused his most terrifying tragedy, and doesn’t hasten to add much of his own.
In the play, Macbeth is haunted throughout with the most occult faculty for second sight, and, though his intellect is demonstrably never more than average, his visions – which come to him, far beyond his control – are of the highest preternatural order any reader of the play will have encountered. Nothing happens to him, and he does nothing, that he hasn’t foreseen with terrifying clarity, and the horror of Shakespeare’s play is that we’re all implicated in his visions and actions as well. As I said when writing about House of Cards (when comparing it to Macbeth), because Macbeth takes up so much of the play, and everyone else – including his wife, whose lines number only a third of his – is left in the margins, when Macbeth finds himself falling forward into his fate – that of becoming the bloodiest of murderers – we’re left with the sense that those terrible parts of Macbeth are within each of us as well. Macbeth becomes a murderer not when he stabs
Duncan, and again not when he orders the killing
of Banquo and Fleance, but when he first imagines himself with the crown on his
head, and when he first decides that Banquo’s descendants should never be
kings. These ideas come so quickly and so full-bodied into Macbeth’s mind, that
they immediately overwhelm the audience as well, and we find ourselves
complicit to his murders before the deed is even mentioned.
If Macbeth is in mourning for a lost son (as we must assume the dead child to be, given that Macbeth sees Fleance as usurping its place), he has little life and drive left in him to receive these visions, let alone be overcome by them. Kurzel’s film and Michael Fassbender’s performance as Macbeth are coloured throughout with – or, rather, the colour is drained by – a pervasive sense of barrenness, futility, and dread. It also diminishes Lady Macbeth’s stature in the text to consider that she and Macbeth have had and lost a son together, since she seems as much mother to him as wife. And, in Cotillard’s performance, facilitated by Kurzel, Lady Macbeth seems to be urging her husband to kill out of grief, as if becoming queen would fill the vast emptiness in her heart, rather than any determined ambition.
The argument, I suppose, can be made that Kurzel sought to flood his film with a nihilistic worldview, but that would forget that the play itself is already entirely nihilist, and its supreme artistic success shows that the absence of hope and moral significance in life is not the absence of fierce emotion, nor of immense, complex, transformative experience. Kurzel’s method is nothing if not stylised, but his style serves only to dampen any complexity and immensity of that experience. If you read other reviews of the film, or just search for images of it online, you’ll see quickly that Kurzel makes use of large, blank backdrops, and strong solid colours in his frame. The final battle scene is shot as if the lens were coated in red paint. For at least a quarter of an hour, the film is virtually monochromatic, an intense colour that indicates an intense emotion, but nothing about it, and nothing about the way anything is shot within it, does anything to evoke that emotion, or vary it. Ferocity is potent, but is particularly potent in flashes, or short bursts, and as an underpin for broader, more nuanced emotions, and this lengthy bout of it is really only a slog.
The departures from the text, and the incongruence that arises from his additions to it, perhaps aren’t really problems to Kurzel, since he doesn’t seem to be very much concerned with its substance and might, only that it’s spoken in a way that suggests moral and emotional fatigue. Like the visual compositions, the actors’ verbal tones are uniform, and save for a few shouted lines at the dinner where Macbeth catches sight of Banquo’s (Paddy Considine) ghost, the entire text is spoken as if in a trance. Actors look into the middle distance or they press their foreheads together and stare doggedly into each other’s faces, and with blank eyes and blank voices, they push the lines out of their mouth like Rupert Grint spits out slugs in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Kurzel has either forgotten that Shakespeare wrote his entire play in verse, or he’d like the audience to forget it.
He replaces the rhetorical opulence in two of the famous monologues with what he would presumably like to think of as visual poetry – when Macbeth growls “Is this a dagger which I see before me,” the blade is held up by the corpse of a boy he saw killed on the battlefield; and when Lady Macbeth gives her “Out, damned spot!” monologue (in the church building in solitude, with no interruptions from the doctor and gentlewoman), it’s given in one long take with Cotillard urgently whispering it at a marker just behind the camera, with a final reveal that also involves a dead child. But these do not heighten one’s awareness nor bring some new idea to light; from the speeches alone (when you’re able to hear them) you’d be able to tell that the Macbeths are haunted by their lack of children, a point noticed by every astute reader of the play for centuries, and already reinforced in the film’s very first shot.
The two sorest losses with respect to the poetry of Shakespeare’s text are two gaping cuts made to the text. One is the removal of the porter and his cheerfully hungover speech given while opening the gate to Macduff and Lennox (which can’t take place, because the setting is an encampment of tents rather than any guarded building), right after we’ve seen Macbeth and Lady Macbeth flee the scene of their crime – the only comedy Shakespeare allowed into his drama, and which Kurzel has completely excised. It lends a human and realistic weight to the higher visions of the play, and I, for one, lament its absence. The second omission is the majority of the witches’ speeches. Kurzel has accurately deduced that the witches have little effect on the plot and, in truth, tell Macbeth nothing he hasn’t already imagined himself, and so allows them the very minimum of their lines in his film. But the witches still serve an important function in the play, in aspects such as the surprisingly shuddering shift from the iambic pentameter everywhere else to their entrancing, eerie tetrameter (which, of course, is imperceptible here), rather like sinister nursery rhymes; and the bewitchment in which they hold us with their sly equivocation, half-lies, and hidden truths.
Nearly every decision made by Kurzel for his adaptation works to remove the poetry and fantasy and unruly eroticism from Macbeth – the very elements that render it such a sublime, terrifying work – and wrench it down into the dust and mud and blood on the ground. Kurzel has treated his very art, that of filmmaking, to the crimes a Shakespearean villain may inflict upon his victims; he has sliced up and suffocated the text, alternately drowned and smothered his sets and settings, and cheated his camera of the chance to locate or evoke any life anywhere. Kurzel may have decided to make a Macbeth for a jaundiced generation, with his focus on the dire pain and misery of the Macbeths and nothing else. Certainly, in Shakespeare’s play, there is no redemption and no sanctuary for either the characters or the audience, but there is the sense – even though it’s the victim’s sense – of a surpassing beyond. Harold Bloom identifies these forces beyond as “the tragic sublime itself, and Macbeth, despite his own will, is so deeply at one with them that he can contaminate us with sublimity. … If they terrify us by taking over this play, they also bring us joy, the utmost pleasure that accepts contamination by the daemonic.” Kurzel’s determination to remove the poetry and that exaltation from his work drags it down into a drab gloom, and the emptiness that marks the film is not only the emptiness of its characters’ moral senses or emotional gratifications, but also of the artist’s vision and conviction.