When news broke that Oscar nominees Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard would be headlining the Scottish play on film with a period accurate sensibility, we all celebrated that we would finally be getting a more updated look to what Polanski successfully did years ago. When the trailer broke (with now over three and a half million views), we cheered at the seemingly exciting slow-motion visceral grime and fetishistic blood splatter that this production would bring, anticipating that this version would be the Macbeth that would cross scholarly boundaries, reaching the uninitiated. In the interim, the film perplexingly struggled to find a distributor until the Weinsteins finally released it into five theaters last December with little to no fanfare. Since then, it’s languished in the on-demand world for all to see, yet no one did. It’s completely dropped out of the public consciousness; word of mouth never ignited from the few who did see it, and for good reason: this film didn’t live up to our expectations and just doesn’t work. So the question remains: what is so wrong with it that would make something so anticipated become such a non-entity so suddenly?
As the initial draw to the film, we can be quick to blame the actors (mostly because as a society, we love to tear down our idols), but in watching the central performances, many of the decisions seem out of their hands. For the sake of purposeful dramatic subtlety, they recite every line in a raspy murmur, as actors knit their brows, look overly focused and intense, and speak lines a little above a whisper. The thought that maybe Fassbender and Cotillard were cast based on their expression-filled eyes crosses the viewers mind, as they try to give looks that seem to speak volumes so that their mouths don’t have to. For the titular character, we can understand this somewhat comatose approach, as some directors like to downplay Macbeth’s emotions for the first half of the play so that his madness can be that much more intense when it comes. For Fassbender, this approach mostly works. Before the king’s death, Fassbender plays Macbeth as a man on the edge, manipulated by his surroundings, so when he kills unprovoked, it’s somewhat shocking as to how much his madness takes over. Following this approach, later scenes show him mumbling to himself, glancing around paranoically, and with Fassbender’s stature and practiced expressions, we feel his horrific decent. We see him becoming introverted and withdrawn, however, because the opening half has him so un-charismatically muted and somewhat unlikeable (but for a brief sword slice “from the knave to th’ chops,” we never see the great warrior and leader he is), his downfall isn’t as dramatic and tragic as it should be. As for Lady Macbeth, her opening scenes show great promise as she seduces and copulates with her husband while convincing him to kill, giving Cotillard a chance to display some range, but beyond that moment, she is pretty window dressing, good-looking background, a wide-eyed participant with nothing to contribute. Yet, all of these decisions don’t seem to come from the leads.
And it’s not the fault of the world that’s been created, either. Working with a thundercloud gray and earth tone palette (that later develops into oranges and yellows reminiscent of a solar flare), the filmmakers create a landscape scorched by war and scarred by hatred with an opening battle reminiscent of Kenneth Branagh’s and Rob Ashford’s recent New York Armory production. With a reliance on natural lighting, the striking visuals draw the viewer into this savage world filled with murder, betrayal, and dirt. Lots of dirt, akin to a Mad Max remake. Adding to the realism, the witches are also grounded, portrayed as flesh and blood with no hint of abilities beyond prophecy, giving the sense that the mystical live among us and not above us. Another strong contribution to the development of the world is that entrances and exits are almost never filmed, initially a strange choice, and are instead covered with film edits. Surprising, the effect is that we are then thrust into conversations already happening and the immediacy of the events is purposefully eliminated, giving the film a dreamlike quality to it, as one scene gently flows into the next.
Yet, these parts do not cover up the glaringly misguided issues that remain. Strip them away, and the reason for the film’s poor reception becomes clear: the blame lies with the screenwriters and the director and their ill-conceived emphases and wildly wrongheaded choices in editing, all of which are rooted in a basic misunderstanding of the play as evidenced by these decisions.
Refocusing the film’s dramatic themes, the filmmakers decide to start with the Macbeths burying their dead child, a reference that is hinted at later on in the text, emphasizing how everything the couple does is overshadowed by this tragic event. Although not a new idea, it’s not an often used one, so credit is given for taking some risks with refocusing the story around this event. However, this emphasis seems to be the only card up the filmmakers’ sleeves, the only new idea they bring to the table. Instead of clever additions, the filmmakers institute massive cuts to the screenplay left and right for fear that the viewer be distracted away from their point.
What emerges is a serious imbalance between trimming the original text for the sake of said focus and developing a leaner, faster paced film. The cuts are wildly haphazard with minor characters being pared down beyond their essence for the sake of this sole focus and time. (Blink and you’ll miss it: Lady Macduff’s role is mostly reduced to screams of “Murder.”) Instead of breaking new ground with the grieving Macbeths, or even developing additional themes given the breathing room as a result of the cuts (primogeniture vs. tanistry, the coexistence of the sacred and the profane, the challenges of manhood, anything), the time is now filled with flat, emotionless, drawn out line readings that take up twice as much time as they should, developing a lurid pace that makes it feel even longer.
The filmmakers’ choice to cut ancillary characters sometimes contributes to the leanness of the screenplay, such as in the decision to mostly eliminate Ross from the proceedings (a character that speaks much but never really has much bearing on anything, minus Polanski’s interpretation) and the murderers’ speeches with Macbeth (lots of rhetoric, little reward), however more often than not, the elimination of said characters has detrimental effects on key scenes. For example, where his much-needed comic relief lightens the burden of the king’s death on the audience with levity, the porter is gone, making this undertaking a completely mirthless affair. Another is Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, where the filmmakers chose to cut the nurse and doctor completely. What highlights and draws out Lady Macbeth’s decent into madness is the juxtaposition of these two seemingly “unnecessary” characters’ diagnostic stance with her quixotic behavior, and their observations of Lady Macbeth’s erratic actions and confessional comments. Without these two, her scene is turned into a glorified soliloquy filled with lament and regret instead of insanity, with no one to name and label her psychosis for the audience’s sake.
Without much thought to development and continuity, whole sections are either cut or reorganized for the sake of time and focus. Many lines make no sense and lose all narrative thread. When Lady Macbeth says “you lack the season of all natures, sleep,” there is no evidence to support that Macbeth is sleep deprived and has in fact “murdered sleep.” A jumbled Act 3 now alters motivations and character arcs. Lady Macbeth’s madness is no longer attributed to her inability to cope with the mounting pile of bodies but instead is as a result of her husband’s increasingly paranoid and illogical choices. For a film so concerned with developing the effect of generational loss, they sure did cut quite a bit that would have contributed to the theory. Siward’s pride over Young Siward’s death? Let’s get rid of those two. Malcolm struggling to return to his father’s homeland and embrace his rightful reign as heir? Who needs that, am I right? If you’re going to cut, there needs to be some method to it.
And then there are just bafflingly dumbfounded decisions that defy logic. Right after establishing the opening scenes, there is an expositional dump with decidedly un-Shakespearean scrolling narration about the war. Of the now four(!) witches, two have thuddingly obvious American accents, a horribly miscast and wasted David Thewlis (who was it that mistook him for being regal?), and the complete lack of character reactions to emotionally loaded lines, making many actors look tired and bored. There are just plain weird interpretations of lines: to fulfill the prophecy of Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, the filmmakers set fire to the trees of Birnam Wood and the glowing embers find their way to the castle on the wind. And finally, the filmmakers commit a critically unforgiveable sin by having Lady Macbeth share a brief, albeit detrimental moment with the witches, thereby allowing her to forfeit any and all responsibility for her actions, chalking her fate up to supernatural solicitation. As so much of the audience’s catharsis lies in Lady Macbeth receiving a comeuppance in her madness, she is now seen as a pitied victim of mystical whims.
It’s all a frustratingly maddening business considering the talent involved that only whets our appetites for what could have been. In the hands of better artists, it may have ended up being the period-authentic Macbeth we all need and deserve. Out, out, indeed.