Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth wisely rejects the Scottish Play’s excessively familiar, almost clichéd aesthetic: chains, moldy dungeons, the Lord and Lady creeping around like community theater vampires. This new Macbeth movie, starring Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender, is shot with “restless ecstasy,” a phrase Macbeth uses to describe his brain’s feverish inner-workings.
Viewers will, for one thing, be startled by the intense colors. The Scottish highlands’ lush greens and blues clash with the red flames of battle. Instead of the expected dark and gloom, we see bright, piercing yellows and golds.
In this vital, breathing Macbeth, the main couple is young and beautiful. The camera lingers over Cotillard’s lovely moon-face and Fassbender’s muscular chest. Their physicality makes you believe that Lady M might, after all, “bring forth men children,” heirs who would cement their reign forever.
Sadly, the actors don’t match the intensity of these visuals. Fassbender and Cotillard deliver effective monologues, but their characters’ interactions are cold and awkward. Presumably to compensate for this emotional distance, they’re shown having sex nearly every time they’re alone. Meant to be sultry, the device is merely lazy.
Indeed, the film suffers for explicating what would be better implied. The Macbeths have sex instead of sexual tension, public executions instead of shadowy assassinations. This Macbeth openly proclaims himself a butcher and tyrant, but his subjects seem as if they can’t or won’t hear him. One might, generously, interpret the utter absence of subtlety as a way to illustrate how tyrants force their subjects to deny reality. The approach comes off as cheap as often as it seems interesting, however.
Kurzel also aims low when grappling with the question of evil. Instead of Shakespeare’s beginning—the witches on the heath tempting Macbeth with promises of power and glory—he shows Lord and Lady Macbeth in anguish, burying their infant child. Their evil stems from their pain, not their fierce ambition. We also see Macbeth victorious in bloody battle, but mourning one of his teenage soldiers. It’s not clear who the young man is—a relative or even another Macbeth child? But he is loved. When Macbeth meets Duncan, his king, the willingness to commit treason is already clear. Perhaps he blames Duncan for the boy’s death.
Shakespeare’s text only hints at the possible existence of an heir or heirs, now dead. When reading it, we cannot know if the baby’s death preceded the murderous thoughts by a week or a decade. Kurzel’s decision to place the story in the immediate aftermath makes the Macbeths’ later decisions, and even their madness, almost sympathetic. They embrace evil not for its own sake, but due to howling grief. In interviews Fassbender goes so far as to attribute Macbeth’s descent to “post-traumatic stress disorder.” To Kurzel and Fassbender, the Macbeths’ tyrannical desire to rule others is an insufficient motive. They must be warped by intelligible, outside forces to be so evil.
This psychological interpretation is preferable to the spooky, hokey productions that blame the witches and the devil for Macbeth’s downfall. Yet, while many other Macbeth characters suffer horrible losses—parents, children, spouses—none enthusiastically surrender their lives’ direction to demonic forces. Pinning Macbeth’s rage and madness on PTSD, not the lust for power and eternal rule through heirs, shortchanges the story, characters, and viewers.
Children in Macbeth are loved less than they are desired as a means to immortality, heirs who’ll turn a king’s reign from a forgettable, transient event into a dynasty. This connection to the transcendent, and thus to the next life, seems to keep the fathers—Duncan, Banquo, and Macduff—anchored to a kind of morality. But the Macbeths pervert this connection into a basis for immorality. Having no connection to the divine, Macbeth muses, he can kill the children of others with impunity in order to make room for children he may have someday, or may never. Thus, when Fassbender’s Macbeth sees the dagger that entreats him to kill the King, the ghost of the young man he watched die on the battlefield holds it in offering. Macbeth is haunted not only by witches, but by children past and prospective. The thought of progeny drives him forward.
Kurzel’s strong choices are cinematographic—the movie is full of beautiful shots— but his weak ones hamper the acting, characters, and story, especially its ending. The most famous image associated with this play is Macbeth’s severed head, held high by Macduff in the last scene. So terrifying is Macbeth that he must be irrevocably killed for us to believe he’s really gone. The genius of Shakespeare is to make us love Macbeth even as we long for this climactic catharsis.
But Kurzel offers us no such release. Fassbender’s Macbeth is run through the stomach. He dies kneeling, left on the battlefield in a lifelike crouch, head attached. The Macbeth tragedy is also, crucially, a play about the moral order‘s triumph. Without the severed head, we lose the enormity of this moment, and of all that led to it.
Kurzel’s Macbeth is full of gorgeous spectacle that doesn’t signify much. It surfeits the eye without satisfying the soul.