I went to see the new film of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, with Papa Bear last week. It’s not a play that I feel very personally about (although my brilliant little brother has played Macbeth, and has helped me to understand the text better through his performance). So I had few expectations, apart from hoping to be dazzled and provoked. Both of these things happened, and I’m still trying to figure out how and why I felt as I did about the whole film, so I thought I’d expand my remit a bit to talk about it here.
Negatives first: my major issue with this film was that the language seemed basically secondary. The cool thing about Shakespeare is that you can put all sorts of window dressing on it, as long as you don’t add dialogue, so that films of the plays can be visually amazing, with silent scenes and characters that create resonance or suggest motive. The downside of that is that the language can easily become less and less important, as the stuff you’re being shown sidelines the stuff you’re hearing. Fassbender as Macbeth delivered most of his lines in a sort of mumbling Scottish-tinged monotone, which I actually didn’t mind per se, but in a few places he seemed to have trouble with where the emphases should be. Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth was quite a lot better; she was inexplicable but definitely human (as opposed to a crazed gender-bending monster), which I’ve always considered a more effective approach to her character. She also got a backstory in the form of a silent prologue that showed her and Macbeth burying their baby, which made her line “I know how tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” a lot easier to understand. The witches also made the monotone thing work; they all looked like terribly sad, average medieval Scottish women, auguries of the kind of pain and suffering that falls, in a war, disproportionately upon people who have nothing to do with the quarrel.
This version also draws out the play’s implications about children. In an excellent echo of Macduff’s wife and children, the witches appeared with two: a silent little girl and then later a baby. When Banquo is killed and his son Fleance runs (in a scene that isn’t staged in the play), it’s the witches’ silent little girl who appears to him and seems to direct him into thin air, where he vanishes.
Fleance comes back in the last scene (a silent one, so also the film director’s interpolation). He takes Macbeth’s sword from the ground outside the city. It’s intercut with shots of Malcolm, now king, standing in his throne room, then starting to walk purposefully towards the doors. Fleance turns and starts walking away; we flit back to Malcolm, who’s moving faster. The next shot we see of Fleance, he’s sped up in response. They both break into a run. The last shot in the movie is Fleance running away from the camera into a blood-colored smoke: a stocky, freckly eight-year-old clutching a huge sword, the sound of his breathing jogging up and down. It ends the film not on the triumphant(-ish) note of the rightful king being crowned, but with the promise of further bloodshed. Even little boys aren’t exempt; it passes the violence down to the next generation, in precisely the same way that Banquo does when he lets Fleance hold his sword (in another scene that isn’t in the play). You can’t know that your children will live by the sword without also knowing that they may die upon it.
In the light of Shakespeare’s other historical plays, particularly Richard II, it’s also interesting for what it says about kingship. There’s no context or background for how Duncan (a cracking David Thewlis, projecting kindliness and weakness) got his crown. Macbeth takes it from him by murdering him, and there’s a bit at his coronation, the anointing, which made me think of Richard’s lines: “Not all the water in the rough rude sea/Can wash the balm off an anointed king.” (Nor the spot from Lady Macbeth’s hand, evidently.) But obviously that’s not true, because even when the supposed balance of nature is restored (with Malcom’s ascension), there’s Fleance to deal with, and the witches have prophesied that he’ll be king someday. I don’t know whether Scottish history proved them right or wrong, or whether this bit has no historical basis at all (knowing Shakespeare, it could be that). Is there even any point, this plot makes us ask, in trying to determine who the “rightful” king is?
Maybe Macbeth’s crime is not so much that he slew his sovereign as that he slew a guest. When you hosted someone, you were making a promise, not only to not kill them, but to actively protect them. So Lady Macbeth’s furious speech, “Was the hope drunk wherein you dressed yourself?”, about how he promised her he’d kill Duncan and promise-breakers are the worst, takes on a whole other sort of dramatic irony. In order to keep a private promise to his wife, he’s going to have to break a much more serious, socially binding promise to a man under his protection. It’s for the same reason that the Glencoe Massacre was so infamous: not just that the Campbells killed people, but that they killed people whom they were obligated to protect. They betrayed their trust fully.
For making me think hard about the play and its text and themes, I think the film was worth seeing. It’s curious, though, how much of Shakespeare’s language is simply elided by being able to direct your audience’s attention through a camera shot, or to force a comparison or parallel through colour or lighting. I’ve seen films of Shakespeare that don’t do this so much, and I’ve seen ones that do it a lot; this Macbeth is in the latter camp, and although that doesn’t make it a bad Macbeth, it does make it seem more like a reimagining, and less like an attempt to be faithful to the playtext.