Film Review: Macbeth (2015)


I had been really looking forward to seeing this film because of the strong reviews it had received, such as this one. Macbeth is my favorite of all the plays of William Shakespeare and because it had excellent actors in Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard in the lead roles, I expected a lot. I tend to like his tragedies and histories a lot more than his comedies and this story is a timeless morality tale of a once-honorable man whose ‘vaulting ambition’ turns him into a ruthless and disturbed monster, egged on by an even more ambitious wife and led astray by deceptive promises of success and invincibility.

But I hated this film. It was relentlessly depressing in tone. Granted, Macbeth is not a barrel of laughs but whatever one may think of Shakespeare, he maintained a snappy pace in his plays and packed a lot of interesting dialogue as he briskly moved the story along. But the director had taken out huge chucks of the text and replaced it with long slow pans of vistas of Scottish scenery, coupled with long and extremely bloody fight scenes with the action often moving in slow motion, and the actors often mumbling and staring in silence. There were entire bits of familiar text, like Macbeth’s speech about murdering sleep, that disappeared in this version. Much of the witches’ dialogue was replaced by them wandering around slowly in a fog and staring.

The focus on violence and gore was troubling. In the play the murders often take place off stage and are reported by the characters. But the director in the film misses no opportunity to make the deaths into gruesome visual spectacles.

In short, I thought the film was a pretentious mess, boring when it was not bloody, and perhaps appealing mostly to those who value cinematic technique over basic storytelling. I did not feel anything at all when key characters, including our dynamic duo of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, died. (I assume that everyone knows the story and that I am not giving away any spoilers. Besides, Shakespeare is well known for pretty much killing off most of the characters in his tragedies, as is captured by the joke about making a sequel to Hamlet titled Hamlet II: Where Is Everybody?)

There is lot to be said for seeing this play on stage where the director does not have the luxury of using visuals to replace speech and thus has to focus more on getting the most out of the dialogue.

Watch the trailer. And then imagine nearly two hours of pretty much the same tone.

Comments

  1. Menyambal says

    Thanks for the film review. I likes me some Shakespeare, and might have risked the darker territory that is Macbeth. But dang, it is the dialog, the words, that make Shakespeare great. Cutting and mumbling just don’t cut it, especially so the director can imitate Ridley Scott’s _Gladiator_.

    It reminds me of the Shakespeare films from the 1930s or so, when the actors would sit still and recite the lines in a flat monotone. Shakespeare is meant to be lively. But replacing the active delivery with silent action is not the solution. Then stopping the action to mutter the lines is worse still.

  2. GenghisFaun says

    If you enjoy Shakespearean tragedies, l highly recommend Akira Kurusawa’s films Throne of Blood (1957) and Ran (1985). The former is his take on Macbeth and the latter King Lear, both set in feudal Japan. Ran is one of my favorite films ever. The cinematography is gorgeous and his use of color striking. The battle scenes portray war for what it is: horrific and tragic.
    Those are by no means the only great films of Kurosawa – he has so many. If you’ve never seen his work, get to it. He was a Master.

  3. Mano Singham says

    I have seen Ran (and also Rashomon and Seven Samurai) but not Throne of Blood. I will check it out. Thanks!

    By the way, US director Martin Ritt did an American version of Rashomon starring Paul Newman titled The Outrage. It was terrible and should be avoided at all costs unless you enjoy laughing at bad films. I reviewed both here.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    Seconding Throne of Blood. Also, the 2009 production of Hamlet was very good. David Tennant and Patrick Stewart finally do something worthwhile! 😉

  5. Rob says

    Mano, thanks for the review. That confirms the fears I had based on an interview I heard some weeks back.
     
    Can I suggest you check out ‘King Hereafter’ by Dorothy Dunnet. As an alternative history (Dunnett would I suspect argue truer history) of Macbeth it is both fascinating and compelling and has a very moving ending.

  6. Rob says

    The ability to make great movies was not one of Polanski’s faults. His version of MacBeth is my favorite.

  7. Mano Singham says

    I went back and reread the play today and it confirmed my view of how much good dialogue had been cut. I feel sorry for those whose first experience of Macbeth is this film.

  8. StevoR says

    @8. mnb0 & #10.Rob : I second, well, third the recommendation for the Polanksi film version. Great movie and take on the Scottish play.

  9. Johnny Vector says

    The best version I’ve seen was the Posner/Teller one at Folger. I know enough about magic to know how all the tricks were done, but it was the directing that made it great. Not only were almost all the words there, but in most cases the delivery was so clear that it sounded as if they were speaking modern American English. Too bad stage theater is ephemeral.

  10. Josh Hammond says

    I agree with your complaints about the cuts, but I felt like the true victim was really the plot’s coherency. (It’s also tough for Shakespeare fans to see any adaptation because favorite lines are ALWAYS cut – Othello at the Globe in London cut “She loved me for the dangers I had passed . . .” – are you kidding me?!) I actually liked the visual choices and the decision to move the violence on screen. Other than Throne of Blood (bump again), I feel too many adaptations of Macbeth overlook the brutality that contributes to Macbeth’s downfall. Certainly not the case here, but definitely not for everyone.

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