Thursday, December 31, 2015

Macbeth (2015)

Film: Macbeth (2015)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, David Thewlis
Director: Justin Kurzel
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Shakespeare was never really meant for the cinema.  This is both an obvious fact (the cinema not really being an option when Shakespeare was penning plays) and because Shakespeare comes alive far better on the stage.  There's an electricity about watching the sets change, and seeing the great dialogues that are being performed in front of your eyes, all fine enunciation and rhythm.  When you put that into a cinematic setting, it frequently feels stilted and occasionally just ridiculous.  People don't talk like that, and let's be honest here, probably never did to this degree (certainly not with this sort of wit and vocabulary), but the stage is meant to be a more distant reality than the realism the movies bind themselves toward, and so we frequently find Shakespearean movies, at best, to be something like Shakespeare in Love, where the play isn't really the thing, but what's happening behind the scenes is.  This isn't the case with this year's Bard entry, where Macbeth in many ways tries to meld the world we know with that of Shakespeare.  In theory this could almost work, as Macbeth is one of those rare Shakespearean stories that functions, without much embellishment, in the realm of our current cinematic landscape but it can't quite get there.  The film's set pieces and Scottish minimalism are cool, but combined with the dialogue feel like a weirdly stilted version of Braveheart, rather than Shakespeare's greatest masterpiece (it's my favorite of all of his plays).

(Spoilers Ahead...though really, if you don't know the story of Macbeth maybe it's time to take a long, hard look at your free time and possibly re-prioritize some culture into it) The story is about as well-known as you can get, but it's worth pointing out that the film's look is never really the issue.  The film's setting is a fascinatingly small sect of Scotland, and we get the sense of how great and how little being king at the time in this world was; after all, Scotland was hardly the signficant land that it comes across as when we see Mary fight Elizabeth a few hundred years later, and here it's more like something that resembles the fighting bands in a Genghis Khan movie than the giant castles of the House of Stuart.  This may be historically accurate, but it takes some getting used to, and combined with the dialogue (Shakespeare makes sense if you try, but frequently you have to get into his mind-sight, in the same way that you find yourself re-reading the first ten pages of a Bronte novel a couple of times before you're finally adjusted) makes you sort of distracted for the first twenty minutes, which is really when Macbeth gets its groove on as a story.

I'm always an advocate for filmmakers to take liberties with a written source (the cinema, as we have already pointed out, being a different beast), but part of me wonders why specific sections of the movie were cut, particularly those involving the witches and some of their more immortal lines ("by the pricking of my thumbs" will not be uttered if you were hoping for it like I was).  What we instead have focuses almost entirely upon the two leads, and the unfortunate Macduff.  This is probably the right decision as what the film does have going for it is two truly great actors at the helm, and two insanely sensual ones at that.  Fassbender and Cotillard are almost cosmically hot in their roles, with each sparking incredible sexual heat off of not just each other, but pretty much everyone around them.  There seems to be an attraction that everyone has to Fassy's Macbeth in particular that I never saw in the original text, but does come across in some ways as he descends into madness and still people gravitate in his circle around him.  That electric heat and sexuality is odd for this text, which doesn't have the obvious romantic inclinations of Romeo & Juliet nor the more obvious handsome lovers of Hamlet, but it works in the context and easily is the film's best asset.

The final act, which is less interesting (am I the only one who wants Lady Macbeth, all scheming and ambition, to win in the confines of the play?) and indulges in a hyper-violence that is instantly at odds with the remainder of the film, and quite frankly I wasn't into it.  The scenes read as violent, but seeing the near constant destruction of this minute world feels a tad too dramatic and overdone.  The film never properly recovers after Cotillard's Lady Macbeth offs herself, and as a result we get little indication of what Macbeth, now descent into madness, is really fighting for as he seems to loathe the idea of being king and she was the driving catalyst for his throne-love.  Adding in the fact that Malcolm is really underwritten here and that the witches' prophecies aren't underlined enough for the audience for it to be apparent that their pronouncements have come true, albeit not in the ways that anyone had intended, and you have a sloppy final third.  The film has shown some interesting moments at this point, but nothing special aside from hiring two ridiculously charismatic actors has happened in the meantime, so I left the film with a bit of a letdown.

Those were my thoughts-how about yours?  Did you find yourself impressed by the heat of Cotillard/Fassbender, and not much else, or were you all about this darkened look at the King of Scotland?  How do you think that the cinema could properly translate Shakespeare, or do you find it a lost cause?  And what play would be the one that could make the jump?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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