The Australian director, Justin Kurzel, made a film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 2015 which starred Michael Fassbinder and Marion Cotillard.

During the last half-century, original screenplays have become the norm. Until then most films were adaptations of novels or plays. In an adaptation the adaptor takes the original work and bends and twists it into a very different medium, finally arriving at some kind of version of the original, but transposed to something new – a film, with all its own traditions and conventions, which are different from those of novels and plays. These days filmmakers will occasionally make an adaptation of a play or a novel only if they have a good reason to do so.

When a film writer adapts a Shakespeare play for the big screen she has to make it of much shorter duration, invariably having to cut up to half of the beautiful poetry that makes up the Shakespeare text. That in itself causes a huge landslide of the original meaning, that inevitably obscures or conceals, or at least changes, Shakespeare’s intentions. Every single word of a Shakespeare text is necessary to the author’s meaning or he would not have included it. The exclusion of half of the words, therefore, requires a series of judgments. But the chance of coming anywhere near Shakespeare’s intentions, or the effect of the play on the audience, is nil if half his words are cut out.

Every Shakespeare play has a story or plot. Shakespeare places each scene in a position in the text that will tell the story in a way that will reflect his intentions. And then there is the characterisation. Stories are about people – their actions, their words, their intentions, their motivations and their interactions with others. Most filmmakers working with a Shakespeare text change the order of the scenes, they take lines out of a scene and plant it into a different scene and they cut whole scenes out. The more they do that the more they depart from Shakespeare’s meanings.

Taking all that into account, the filmmaker does not end up with a version of a Shakespeare play: she ends up with a story taken from an idea by Shakespeare that expresses her own intentions as a filmmaker.

To make a film version of a Shakespeare play, faithfully following the Shakespeare text in every detail wouldn’t work very well, and indeed, wouldn’t be possible, because it would lack that essential three-dimensional stage in a real theatre with live actors and a live audience. The only way of approximating those things would be to film the actual stage performance. It still wouldn’t be completely right but it would be closer to the play itself than any film adaptation so far made. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1979 television version of Macbeth, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, came close to offering a Shakespeare play on the screen. It just filmed the stage performance but using some creative camera shots and angles. It wasn’t offered as a film but as a video recording of an RSC performance.

Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film is a joy to watch as the camera rolls over a bleak, misty highland landscape and some authentic medieval sets, including Macbeth’s camp of temporary wooden structures and tents, partly obscured by the murky fog that Lady Macbeth has created with her invocation of the dark forces, with its ‘thick night’ and ‘dunnest smoke of hell.” The murder of Duncan takes place here, in a tent, but we do not mind that it’s not in Macbeth’s castle at Glamys, because it seems such a clever and effective change, and so beautifully presented. Although one is beginning to wonder what Kurzel found wrong with Shakespeare’s choice of venue.

The cinematic effects are wonderful, from slow-motion battle scenes and blood spurts, to close-ups of faces and hands. The dark atmosphere of the play is well reflected in the lighting, ample volumes of fog, and a great deal of darkness. In that respect, Kurzel has certainly taken us into the mood of the Shakespeare original.

Still in praise of the film, the acting performances are strikingly good. Kurzel has cast it with actors who are all competent practitioners of their trade. German/Irish Michael Fassbinder and French Marion Cotillard, are superb as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and demonstrate by their sensitive portrayals of the characters as expressed in Kurzel’s text, that they would produce outstanding interpretations of other versions of those characters closer to Shakespeare’s if the script had called for it. And one can imagine gripping performances from them on the stage.

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth 2015

Michael Fassbender as Macbeth

Cotillard is particularly impressive. She uses her beauty and innocent appearance to maximum effect to “look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it.” She underplays the role, which demonstrates her own advice in every one of her lines and actions. She is calm and beautiful throughout, even as she approaches her self destruction. It’s a memorable performance.

Looking back over the many film versions of Macbeth one could ask the question: ‘If you want to make a film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth why don’t you make sure you understand what Shakespeare is doing in the play?’ One could ask that in this case too.

If Shakespeare were to come back to life, and take a seat in the cinema to watch this film, would he recognise it as his play?

All of his plays had a source somewhere. He would take the source, or a combination of sources, and forge his own story, which would resemble the source, which would be a framework for telling his own story, reflecting his own thematic concerns. It would not be a version or adaptation of the source but something new and different. Just as filmmakers do, using a Shakespeare text, or any other text, as a source.

It was common among Elizabethan playwrights to use the same sources and to use each other’s plays as sources as well. So sitting in the cinema Shakespeare might see it as another version of the story he used as his source for his own Macbeth. The removal of scenes, the cutting of others, and the transplanting of lines from one scene to a different one, would make the text unrecognisable as his own. He would not see those measures as an improvement of his text – he would find them nonsensical.

He would be wondering why on earth Kurzel has the murder of Duncan performed onstage. In his own version of the story he had to have the murder taking place offstage, or the play would lose its meaning. In the first part of the play he presents Macbeth as a hero. The audience sees that at the start, and then Shakespeare plunges us into Macbeth’s mind. He wants us to be with Macbeth, so to speak, to be inside his head, to identify with him. Macbeth has a great dilemma, informed by his ambition and the temptation to act on it. The playwright wants us to hear all the arguments and the inner debate, and to see this sensitive, good and decent, man, superhero, loyal servant of the king, responsible member of society, grappling with this problem. He wants us to sympathise with him, even for some time after the murder. We must not actually see this man we are identifying with actually brutally stabbing his king. He wants us to sympathise with Macbeth’s feelings, even, or especially, after the assassination. He wants us to follow his guilt and remorse as he confides in us after he has killed Duncan.

Sitting there, watching Macbeth brutally stabbing the vulnerable sleeping king, Shakespeare sighs. Kurzel has ruined it: he has lost the whole idea of Macbeth. In his own version, he takes us out of Macbeth’s mind gradually, with scenes in which we begin to see Macbeth through the eyes of others. We discover that he has been sending his agents out, murdering opponents and their families, and now instead of the hero we saw when we first heard about Macbeth, he is a ‘hell kite.’

And then, right at the centre of the play we see what is possibly the most shocking scene in all of Shakespeare: the brutal murder of an innocent child onstage. It is at that point that Macbeth irrevocably becomes one of Shakespeare’s great villains, who must be destroyed, and Shakespeare now does everything to make the audience abandon Macbeth, to get out of his mind, and sympathise with those who are coming after him. The onstage murder of the child does that. We now see his opponents preparing to go after him and our sympathies are with them. There is a potent scene in which we are made to feel Macduff’s pain on having lost his whole family to this depraved tyrant.

The film does not take advantage of that central scene in which the child is murdered. It is not in the film at all. What we see is a shot of Macduff’s family tied to stakes with logs stacked beneath them, ready to be lit. We see that Lady Macbeth is there, watching, too. Shakespeare would be wondering why that was. And we don’t even see the Macduffs burning to death.

There are none of the scenes of Macbeth’s opponents being the ‘good guys’ in the film. We hardly see anything of Macduff, or Malcolm, and we don’t get any dramatic representation of the defeat of Macbeth. And Macbeth doesn’t even have his head cut off by Macduff at the end. It is as though Kurzel is reluctant to show what some people think of as this tragic hero being a villain rather than a hero: he insists on rejecting Shakespeare’s intention of portraying just such a transition. Instead, he tries to make it an Aristotelian tragedy with the downfall of a hero who, although he makes mistakes, remains noble throughout. All too often, those who adapt Shakespeare don’t understand that Shakespeare’s plays don’t fit any model, particularly the Aristotelian one.

Shakespeare would shake his head when seeing how Kurzel has glossed over the relationship between the Macbeths. There is very little of that relationship in the film. In his play Shakespeare paints one of the clearest pictures of a marriage in decline in all literature. The film does show us the sexual nature of their relationship and their close friendship at the beginning of the story, just as Shakespeare does, and the film does it well. But then, after the banquet scene where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, we see nothing of the gradual drifting apart and the eventual estrangement where they don’t talk and are never in the same scene. He is being tortured by his guilt and struggling for survival and she is slowly going mad, descending towards suicide, each in isolation. Shakespeare’s text depicts all that.

When Macbeth is facing the end, as the witches’ prophecies begin to come true, he hears women crying and is told that Lady Macbeth is dead. He offhandedly dismisses that, saying he doesn’t have time for that sort of thing. In the film he goes to her deathbed, holds her body in his arms, kisses her, and utters his “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy in her dead ear. Shakespeare, with all his high intelligence, wouldn’t understand that, particularly as the language of the soliloquy expresses personal despair and isolation, and by the time Macbeth makes that soliloquy he is not thinking of his wife at all.

For all its qualities the film lacks depth. One wonders why the director chose to reshape the plot so as to ignore Shakespeare’s intentions, unless it is the simple explanation that he did not understand the play at all.  One may ask why he chose to do a Shakespeare play anyway, instead of devoting his time to the things he knew about and making another of his several successful films with texts written specifically for him.

Perhaps it is unfair to say he didn’t understand the play though. Perhaps he simply wanted to take the basic story and present it as a shallow rendering of the events with a lot of eye candy, which is what he succeeded in doing. His film has certainly received a lot of rave reviews. It is recognisable as the Macbeth story but not by any means a version of Shakespeare’s play.

See reviews of all Macbeth movies >>

See all Shakespeare movie reviews >>


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