Saturday, April 2, 2016

Movie Reviews: Macbeth

directed by Justin Kurzel

If you've not previously read or seen an adaptation or performance of this Shakespeare play I'd like to (1) know how in the world that is even possible in this day and age and (2) strongly urge you to see this adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy. And even if you have already read the play, seen it performed or viewed other film versions I'd urge you to see this film. It stands on its own. It simultaneously remains very faithful to the script while pointing out the modern and yet timeless urges that define Macbeth

Before Michael Corleone moaned in Godfather 3 that every time he thought he was out they pulled him back in, Shakespeare wrote in Macbeth that "What's done can not be undone." Macbeth influenced important themes of Tolkien's Lord of The Rings. Tolkien specifically reworked Shakespeare's prophecies of an evil tyrant being unable to be defeated by man born of woman or until the woods marched to a castle to what he thought of as much more satisfying and honest ends. Without Macduff revealing his unusual birth circumstances to Macbeth there is no Eowyn laughing and telling the Witch-King "But no living man am I!!" And like Tolkien's Witch-King, Shakespeare's gloomy Macbeth is someone who has thrown away his humanity forever. He's a blasted man whose soul is already in hell even though he still walks this plane of existence. And by the end, he knows it.  Terry Pratchett used interpretations of the three witches from Macbeth in many of his works, most notably Wyrd Sisters. And even if you aren't overly familiar with Macbeth you have almost certainly heard of quotes from Macbeth including such phrases as "By the pricking of my thumbs something wicked this way comes" or "Fair is foul and foul is fair" or "For mine own good all causes shall give way" or my favorite:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time; and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Talk about a cynical or blues interpretation of life's ups and downs! Of  course I am somewhat biased because Macbeth along with Richard III was my absolute favorite play to read/perform during my high school English class all those years ago. I'm always open to seeing a new interpretation of Macbeth.
Macbeth is a solemn examination of the cost of ambition, greed and evil. Once you get your hands dirty, you can't get them clean again no matter what you do. Although this version mostly sticks to Shakespeare's glorious and yet stilted dialogue it sheds the static nature of the stage by using the full range of film techniques to bring this story to life. You won't think that you're watching a play being adapted. Everything feels very lifelike with the exception of some twisted surreal scenes that give you a hint into Macbeth's state of mind. 

The music director and director's brother Jed Kurzel did a good job with a string driven traditional but at the same time modern score. I do believe I also heard some synthesizers and theremins perhaps? Or maybe it was just judicious use of reverb and amplification. I can't say for sure. But I know I liked it. The music is evocative both of the Scottish time period in which the story is set and of the emotions and events which haunt and define several of the chief characters. 

But film is primarily a visual experience is it not? Kurzel doesn't disappoint on that score. Sticking with the blue-gray motif which has come to define many historical or fantasy movies, Kurzel brings the viewer into the seemingly unearthly beauty of the Scottish countryside where the film was primarily shot. He also shows us both the darkness of the human heart and the literal darkness of the halls, tents and battlefields where most of the film's activity takes place. Some events which take place off screen in the play are shown here to devastating emotional impact. Macbeth's rivals consistently underestimate the savagery that he's capable of unleashing. By the time they realize what a truly horrible man Macbeth has become it's far too late.

Michael Fassbender inhabits the titular role. He's an ambitious Scottish nobleman with an equally purposeful wife (Marion Cotillard) who decides to forcibly retire his King (David Thewlis) after receiving word from three witches that he is destined to become King of Scotland. Anytime he doubts or hesitates his wife is there to put steel in his spine. But blood leads to blood and then some more again. In short time Macbeth and his wife learn that power comes at a very great cost. But this isn't just a simple morality play, though you can certainly understand it at that level. This movie raises the question of whether the witches are real or not. Macbeth is a war veteran who has seen and done horrible things even before he takes it into his mind to murder his king. And his wife is haunted by the death of their child. 

So both the lord and the lady are at very dark places in their lives. When life becomes cheap is it any surprise that someone who's well versed in violence can then justify using violence to unlawful ends? That's the modern layer over the story. My only quibble with the film was that the music, while enjoyable, was occasionally mixed loudly enough to interfere with the dialogue, which is often hushed and muttered. So you might find it worthwhile to have subtitles on for a few scenes here or there. So again, if you're unfamiliar with this play, see this movie. It should all be new and wondrous to you. The lavish detailed costumes, gothic settings, and of course the gorgeous Scottish location add to the viewer's enjoyment. Fassbender and Cottilard bring the intensity in this film.
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