Review: Macbeth Reaches New Heights of Bleakness

1 Dec 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

How Michael Fassbender Became ‘Macbeth’ To Star In His First Shakespeare Adaptation.

The “Shame” actor told Reuters “It’s definitely daunting because the work is so excellent you feel a responsibility to it and you don’t want to make a shambles of it.” Fassbender said he spoke about the part to McAvoy, who has played Macbeth on stage. Fassbender, recently nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role in 12 Years a Slave, has become one of the most sought after actors of his generation, starring in both complex dramas like Shame and huge Hollywood blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past. On occasion, this is down to his magnificent command of the english language —though it’s not strictly de rigeur, some filmmakers have airlifted verbatim passages of his dialogue straight out of his original texts.

He said that he actually gave him a sort of miniature ‘Macbeth’ book” and they discussed various things about the relationship between Macbeth and his wife. Knights, bears a provoking title: “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” Within the essay, Knights never bothers to answer the question, because his purpose is to mock it.

It’s too early to tell where Fassbender’s Macbeth will rank among Shakespeare film adaptations, but with a cast like that, it certainly has a shot at landing high on the list. Shakespeare is eternal —his inspired turns of phrase have permeated common vernacular so deeply that we allude to the Bard every day without even realizing it. In his eyes, it stands for all the dumb and fruitless inquiries that are set in train by Shakespearean scholars who see the plays as, in essence, studies of character—a hopelessly dry and reductive view, for Knights, who reads each play as one long dramatic poem, welling over with tides of symbolic language. For a quick refresher on Shakespeare’s version of the tale: Macbeth one day receives a visit from three witches who tell him that he’s going to become the King of Scotland (yay). But another dimension of the enduring appeal of the Big Three — “Hamlet,” “” and “Romeo And Juliet”— is the ease with which they’re translated into contemporary contexts.

Knights asked this question in 1933, as part of an essay intended to put paid to scholarship that treated Shakespeare’s characters as real, living people, and not as fictional beings completely dependent upon, and bounded by, the creative works of which they were a part. “The only profitable approach to Shakespeare is a consideration of his plays as dramatic poems, of his use of language to obtain a total complex emotional response,” he wrote. Macbeth goes a little crazy with his desire for power and with the help of his wife Lady Macbeth, he becomes king by killing the previous king, thus earning the throne with blood on his hands (not so yay).

After all, “Macbeth” has much to say about patrilineage, and the handing down of power; there’s no point in grabbing a crown, however brutally, if it gets plucked away within a generation. The process of coming into one’s own, excessive ambition’s deleterious effects on the soul, and the agony of forbidden love all transcend the Europe of yore. Fassbender brought the Macbeth script to Kurzel after seeing his film The Snowtown, and inspiration struck. “It was the vision of Michael as Macbeth that first intrigued me,” Kurzel said in an interview with List Film.

Though Justin Kurzel stayed faithful to the source material when crafting his new adaptation of “Macbeth” (read our review here), his approach is only one fork off of a road rich with splintering paths. Indeed, in the opening scene of Justin Kurzel’s sumptuous new film version of Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy, we learn that its answer to Knights’s question is at least one. An answer is provided by a new film of “Macbeth,” directed by Justin Kurzel, which begins with a startling sight: a dead child, laid in heather, with stones placed over the eyes.

Kurzel retained the spirit of the original, but amplified the violence that the script mostly leaves implicit: namely, he staged battle scenes that Shakespeare had left offstage with a gruesomely cinematic bent. Many Shakespearean works share the same sort of excellency, from gripping romances to family dramas, hence their many adaptations into films over the years. But, once he committed to the part and brought Kurzel on board to direct, Fassbender realized it was a project he couldn’t walk away from. “I knew right away that I believed in him [Kurzel] and believed in his vision. Before Kurzel looses his tempestuous vision, The Playlist has assembled a look at seven other takes on “Macbeth,” ranging from the reverent to the imaginative. The grieving Macbeths, played by the magnetically charismatic Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, each approach the body, taking turns to gently balance a posy on the child’s still hands, and then cover his tiny eyes with coloured stones.

Yet, still, goaded first by the witches’ prophecy, and then by his wife (Marion Cotillard), he pursues his deviant course: slaying Duncan (David Thewlis) and ordering the assassination of Banquo (Paddy Considine), whose son Fleance (Lochlann Harris) escapes the sword, thus keeping alive the witches’ galling prediction that it is Banquo, not Macbeth, who will spawn a royal line. By the pricking of our thumbs, freely interpretive revisions on a fully enshrined classic of the stage this way comes. “Citizen Kane” lives on as such a massive achievement that it often threatens to eclipse the rest of Orson Welles’ sterling filmography. Their kinsmen silently watch on, each swaddled in blankets, like them, against the brutal Highland winds, before eventually lighting the funeral pyre. Again, children lie at the heart of the matter, and any film or staging of the tale should listen out for those nursery rhythms and rhymes, redolent of the seesaw and the rocking horse, that hold such frightening sway: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair”; “Open locks, whoever knocks”; “The Thane of Fife had a wife.” Kurzel is Australian, and his previous feature, “Snowtown,” was set in the suburbs of Adelaide. Among his lesser-known gems is this Old Hollywood adaptation, sticking with the original setting and leaving Shakespeare’s dialogue mostly intact (though critics of the film wanted to have Welles’ head for his having tinkered with the script, relatively slight as they may seem to a modern audience).

Were he here today, Knights might well have taken such a choice as a painfully literal take on the marital strife that later pushes the Macbeths’ relationship to breaking point, but the truth is that the spectre of child loss has long haunted interpretations of the play. Now he has swapped hemispheres, for the real snows of Scotland, and although the new film is not as bitingly violent as the last, it is an assault course for the senses. Kurzel and Fassbender set out to re-interpret Macbeth as a man suffering from PTSD, as opposed to just another deranged and power-hungry King. “When Justin said it, it was so obvious. Welles had previously mounted a production of “Macbeth” at the ripe age of 20 called “Voodoo Macbeth,” which transported the royal schemings to a Caribbean island and swapped out the Scottish witchcraft for island black magic.

Lady Macbeth’s fierce avowal in the first act that she has “given suck, and know[s] / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks” her has repeatedly led readers, directors, actors, and audiences to wonder what has happened to this child – a question made all the more relevant by Macbeth’s anxious lines about dynasty and inheritance in Act 3. Because it’s actually in the play, in the banquet sequences — Lady Macbeth tells everyone to relax because she’s seen this behavior before, he’s prone to fits. This classic with many accolades was directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as Henry V himself (this won’t be the first time you see Branagh on this list, FYI). He’s seeing Banquo and the witches in the same way that soldiers coming back from Iraq can be walking through Clapham Junction and the next thing they’re in downtown Basra,” Fassbender explained to the Telegraph.

Welles himself gives a towering performance, and the larger-than-life Jeanette Nolan makes for an agreeably wicked Lady Macbeth, though it’s tempting to imagine what the film would’ve looked like had Welles been able to land Vivien Leigh, his first choice for the role. The astonishing makeup that adorns Lady Macbeth, for example, once she is made queen—a wraparound band of sky blue, not just on her eyelids but right across her face—is a horizontal echo of the three downward stripes, daubed in black earth, that marked her husband’s features at the start. While Kurzel actively avoided watching the celebrated adaptations of Macbeth from the Orson Welles, Roman Polanski and Akira Kurosawa, Fassbender binged on Macbeth films as a way to prepare himself to play the role. “It’s information that’s out there, and it can only lend something to what I’m doing,” Fassbender told the Telegraph. With only a shoestring budget, Welles was able to complete shooting on the film in just over three weeks —the final product still looks timeless and priceless.

At the worst of times, as many as one in three babies died in early modern England before their first year, with many more falling victims to illness throughout their childhood years. Of course, the main challenge when preparing to play Macbeth was learning the Shakespearean dialogue to be able to deliver it as naturally as possible. With its emphasis on honor, its shifting dynamics of power, and a culture of violent ruthlessness, feudal Japan perfectly matched the original play in Akira Kurosawa’s immortal remix. Fassbender had never performed in a Shakespeare play outside of the occasional scene work in drama school before tackling Macbeth, and, as any high school student can tell you, Shakespeare dialogue is not easy to understand, let alone perform. The master filmmaker had admitted to modeling his samurai after the cowboys of Westerns in previous films, but here they provide an analog for the military royals of yore.

Shakespeare didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on the death of his son – in fact, he didn’t leave any writings that reflected directly on any aspects of his life – but he did represent the world-shattering pain of losing a child in his history play, King John, which he wrote that same year. While we’re removed from Britain and thrusted into Japan’s Sengoku era with this film, none of King Lear’s original themes or tragedy of Shakespeare’s original work are lost in this highly cinematic, full-on-epic treat. Instead of focusing on the traditional iambic pentameter rhythms of Shakespeare, Fassbender focused on understanding the intent behind the words when learning the pages of dialogue. “I never approached it that way. Toshiro Mifune takes on one of his greatest roles as General Washizu, conveying supreme power but still enough willing blindness to fall into his manipulative wife’s (Isuzu Yamada) machinations. Foulness, for the most part, wins the day, and thus the beautiful paean, by Duncan and Banquo, to the home of the Macbeths—“a pleasant seat,” where “the air is delicate”—is expunged.

What’s notable about this film is that this adaption of Othello is the first big-budget film to cast Othello as a black man (portrayed by Laurence Fishburne). Kurosawa drew on the illustrious history of Japanese noh theatre to style his film, accenting the dramatics of Macbeth’s madness with the heft and grandeur of high opera. Her furious grief becomes the one comfort and companion she can count on in her life: it “fills the room up of [her] absent child,” “puts on his pretty looks,” and “stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” Even when he is gone, it keeps his memory alive. The problem is not that Kurzel cuts the words, which is his absolute right, but that he destroys the conditions from which they might conceivably have sprung. Kurosawa was the first filmmaker to turn Western audiences on to the fascinating developments taking place in Asian cinema, and no film encapsulates the satisfying international exchange better than “Throne of Blood”.

In Kurzel’s film, grief likewise proves a potent, world-altering force, conjuring visions in its protagonists’ minds and cloaking the bleak, moody landscape with a heavy loneliness. In 10 Things, Julia Stiles is the shrewish Kat who is a delight to watch onscreen as she butts heads with Heath Ledger as Patrick, the bad boy who falls for her. Like the great auteur Akira Kurosawa, who carefully selected the ‘fog-bound’, ‘stunted’ slopes of Mount Fuji as the filming location for Throne of Blood, his Japanese-language adaptation of Macbeth, Kurzel turns the physical world – in this case, the steely Scottish Hebrides – into a central piece of the storytelling. Fassbender’s work in Macbeth just earned him his fifth British Independent Film Award nomination, and the film is hitting theaters just in time for Oscar season on Dec. 4.

Eight months pregnant with their first child, Roman Polanski’s muse and wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered in the summer of ’69 by the Manson Family cult. Aided by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, best known for his work on True Detective and its malevolent, Louisiana skies, the “blasted heath” of this Macbeth is something brutal and beautiful, awful and awesome. You want to ask, “Is it worth killing, and inviting damnation, just for the chance to rule this wilderness?” Later, we see a cathedral, with a lofty nave, but its grandeur seems implausible. After two years of wallowing in chronic depression and survivor’s guilt, Polanski dragged himself back into the world of film with this dark, paranoid riff on “Macbeth.” In his review at the time, Roger Ebert notably declared that the film was “an original film by an original film artist, and not an interpretation” and it’s still pretty hard to argue that point.

Polanski repurposes the skeleton of the story to fit his own stylistic and thematic ends, focusing his efforts on elements of self-destruction and psychological instability present in Shakespeare’s original. The weirdness of all this is compounded by Cotillard, playing a foreigner in a strange land, who appears to be dreaming, eyes wide open, not just here but throughout the span of the movie. Shifting the spotlight away from the performances and onto the overall mood of the piece, he summons fear and anxiety from silences and discomfiting absence like those witches worked that cauldron.

In his previous film, 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” Polanski successfully left the haunting impression that everyone therein was out to get our heroine. The year after, his personal suspicions would be confirmed in a horrifyingly real fashion. “Macbeth” starts at that point of total paranoia and descends deeper, as our ostensible hero tries to get the jump on everyone gunning for his crown.

A modern day retelling, this black-and-white romantic comedy, directed by Joss Whedon mostly stays true to the play, excelling in its pacing from gut-wrenching laughter to angst and then laughter again between Beatrice, Benedick, and company. Indeed, Welles’s opening shot pulls us into the cauldron, down to bubble level, to see what is forged in the clayey gruel: an image of such primitive horror, like a creation myth gone bad, that it makes Kurzel’s prelude, set on a battlefield and glutinous with gore, seem a touch ordinary by contrast. When you think of Fassbender, and of his rise in recent years, you picture an action man—smearing his cell walls, in “Hunger” (2008), sating his galloping lusts, in “Shame” (2011), or meting out a fevered flogging, in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). In fact, the whole company of actors seems embarrassed by—or warned against—anything that smacks of rhetorical esprit, and anyone watching the movie, but not knowing the play, might have no idea that it was written in verse. Any glint of lyrical wealth would have spoiled the impoverished mood: such, at least, is Kurzel’s calculation, and you can hear the ghost of Orson Welles, a zealot of the orotund, chuckling richly at such a drab conceit.

He takes his cue not from “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” uttered in an unmemorable drone, but from a far more spirited cry—“At least we’ll die with harness on our back.” Soon, the screen becomes, as Macbeth would say, incarnadine: entirely steeped in red, as if blood had leaked into the lens. Ingmar Bergman, in “Cries and Whispers,” employed the same device. “When I was a child, I imagined the soul to be a dragon,” he later wrote, adding, “Inside the dragon, everything was red.” He was dealing with sickness rather than mortal wounds, but that scorching sense of the dragonish burns into Kurzel’s “Macbeth.” His finest inspiration is to set light to Birnam Wood, so that when it comes to Dunsinane, as foreseen by the witches, it doesn’t rustle through the fog, as it did for Kurosawa. There he is visited by an obsequious pest from Buckingham Palace, no less, who bears a request from the Queen: would Ballinger conduct his most celebrated work at a special concert—and, in the process, rise to become Sir Fred?

Ballinger is content, however, to hang out with his friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a film director, who is stuck on his latest project, and whose son (Ed Stoppard) is married to Ballinger’s daughter (Rachel Weisz). Also present is Miss Universe (Madalina Diana Ghenea), who bathes naked in front of the old guys, indifferent to their flaccid gaze, and a movie star (Paul Dano), who feels in peril, poor lamb, of being typecast by success. The plot goes round and round and nowhere, and the highlight is a couple of blistering monologues—one from Weisz, delivered while she is cloaked in mud, and another from Jane Fonda, as an aging screen goddess, encased in her own crust of powder and Botox.

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