Rumour has it that Michael Fassbender has been going around calling this film adaptation of Macbeth “the Scottish film”, after the actorly tradition. Presumably, something dreadful happens to you if you say Shakespeare’s title, like Malcolm Tucker shoves a thistle down your oesphagus.
Whatever happens to you, it’s a ridiculous, thespy notion, which is a pretty accurate description of this film. The setting, deep in the Scottish Highlands during the 11th century, is certainly cinematic enough. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw has made the most out of the dramatic landscape, painting the sky blood red to reflect its subject’s murderous deeds. It’s even set ablaze as Fassbender battles Macduff with ash stinging in his eyes.
So while Scotland is up to the challenge of filling a big screen, the screenplay just isn’t. As the credits proclaim, this version is “based on a play by William Shakespeare” only; his delicate study of ambition and guilt, of prophecy and agency, is reduced down in favour of slow-motion battle scenes and swirling cinders. Purists will struggle to find a hubble bubble, toil or trouble here.
As simultaneously gritty and pretty as this all is, it doesn’t compensate for dramatic substance. Fassbender is a fine Macbeth, even if he’s noticeably better at murderous rage than shaky introspection, and Marion Cotillard is also a magnetic presence. But rather than trusting his actors’ talents to convey subtletly and nuance from a respectable distance, director Justin Kurzel just shoves a camera in their faces. You’re either watching the whole of Scotland burn or you’re spending entire minutes staring up Fassbender’s nostril, counting every ginger stray in his beard. It’s an extreme and unbalanced approach to film-making that’s difficult to really connect with or enjoy.
If there’s anything this film adaptation does bring to the banquet though, it’s spectacle. It perfectly captures the rambling, primitive barbarism of early tribal Scotland in the way stage versions obviously can’t. Visually, it’s boundless but emotionally it’s limited.