Many films have been made of “Macbeth” — probably less than “Hamlet” and more than “The Tempest” and “Othello” — and doubtless they’ll still be made to the last syllable of recorded time. As with most of Shakespeare, there are always multiple possibilities of interpretation and intent. This is never more true than with “Macbeth,” since the surviving text is widely thought to be incomplete.
In the case of the new version — starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard — director Justin Kurzel has opted to emphasize period realism. The weirs look like weirs, the accents are plausible, and the music sounds like transcribed bagpipe tunes. The entirety of Scotland appears to be a sparsely populated, fog-shrouded wasteland. (That might explain the whiskey and the alleged crabby dispositions, though bagpipe music alone would be enough to drive me to drink.)
For the most part, the film follows the play closely. The biggest divergences are at the beginning. After a written intro giving a bit of plot context, the first scene shows Thane and Lady Macbeth (Fassbender and Cotillard) burying their only child. The play has no such scene. It’s generally assumed that they’ve never had children, but there is some questionable justification for Kurzel’s interpretation in the text — contradictory references to them being childless and to Lady Macbeth having breast-fed a “babe.”
Emphasizing this traumatic event by putting it up front plants in our minds the possibility that their later bad behavior is motivated — at least in part — by their frustration and/or grief over the issue of children.
The film cuts to the three witches on schedule, but it adds a fourth witch, a wordless little girl, whose presence reinforces the above reading of the couple’s psychology.
We then see a fairly lengthy battle, which in the play is described to King Duncan (David Thewlis) by an observer rather than acted out, for obvious reasons. The movie’s production notes boast of the oodles of extras hired to convey the size of the fight, but some of them must be invisible; with the exception of two or three long shots, we rarely see more than 10 or 15 participants at a time. It looks no bigger than a soccer brawl in Bhutan.
The decor suggests that the king has a huge palace, and everybody else — even the thanes — live in small wooden shacks or tents. Wealth disparity is apparently not a new development.
The cleverest of Kurzel’s changes is near the end, where Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane in a way that makes more sense than I’ve seen before.
Fassbender and Cotillard are as good as you expect, but the film still seems emotionally distant. There is less human impact than in, say, Roman Polanski’s 1971 version. And while there is some beautiful cinematography, the style is nowhere as compelling as Orson Welles’ 1948 film — in its restored version, at least. (The original release was butchered by the distributor, Republic Pictures. With a minuscule schedule, Welles shot the whole thing on a big soundstage, the camera gliding along the smooth floor for numerous long takes. Republic missed the point and edited it into a form they were more comfortable with, i.e., breaking the lengthy shots up into graceless fragments.)
The virtues of Kurzel’s “Macbeth” lie primarily in the acting...and that’s not quite enough.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).