Kurzel takes his cues from the text, but he expresses his ideas about the text through images and sounds — the whistling wind, the clashing swords, and the ghostly hooded figures — rather than through the dialogue. The verse, in Kurzel’s hands, is barely even identifiable as poetry. But what is Shakespeare without the unforgettable language?
Few film adaptations of Shakespeare embrace the possibilities of cinema as effectively as Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth. Although the whispery king of Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V and the uncertain, weak monarch of Rupert Goold’s Richard II would be impossible without the closeup, these films were, above all, about the text. For these directors, filming Shakespeare meant setting down for posterity a performance of the play by high calibre actors, who would be impossible to assemble onstage at once.
In Kurzel’s Macbeth, however, the text takes a backseat. Instead, Kurzel relies heavily on sound mixing and symbolic images — the whistling wind, the clashing swords, and the ghostly hooded figures — to communicate plot. The verse, in Kurzel’s hands, is barely even identifiable as poetry. But what is Shakespeare without the unforgettable language? The Bard’s words were his genius while his plots were recycled. Kurzel takes his cues from the text, but he expresses his ideas about the text through images and sounds rather than through the dialogue. Sometimes, these choices even contradict the information embedded in the verse.
The emphasis on tone over text leads to an overwrought and excessively brutal production. Kurzel’s Medieval Scotland is a harsh, hard world from the outset, full of grey clouds, damp weather, and fog. But the text itself isn’t so blunt. Shakespeare gradually builds a sense of foreboding over many scenes by manipulating the metre of the text: he juxtaposes regular iambic pentameter verse, spoken by secondary characters like the unsuspecting Duncan (David Thewlis), with the breaks in verse that signal something is rotten in the state of Scotland
For instance, the Weird Sisters of the text speak in the rapid, jarring trochaic tetrameter — the rhythmic opposite of the Bard’s usual iambic pentameter. Yet the Weird Sisters ignore the nursery rhyme rhythms of their lines and Kurzel has cut most of the scenes of regular verse needed for contrast. Kurzel has backed himself into a corner, leaving no other option than to make this a world of doom and gloom from the start rather than a world that gradually darkens.
Although Kurzel is a master at setting the tone for individual scenes, there’s no discernible arc within each scene. His direction is all about mood and creating intimacy with the characters through closeups. Much of the power of Banquo’s (a quietly moving Paddy Considine) presence is felt in the closeups of his disapproving looks after Duncan’s murder, puzzling out if Macbeth is connected. But there’s little thought put into how staging scenes could help illuminate individual lines, and even less thought put into how he has the actors speak. It’s hard to reconcile with the fact that they spent months rehearsing. The intent seems to be for naturalistic performances, rather than a highfalutin theatrical style.
But delivering Shakespearean dialogue in a way that seems naturalistic requires intense close textual reading and practice — which is clearly missing from this film. When director Thea Sharrock was preparing Tom Hiddleston for the role of Henry V, she made him repeat the set speeches over and over and over again until every word was clear. Branagh spent a year on stage perfecting his Henry V at the RSC before tackling the part on film. Ian McKellen’s Richard III, Branagh’s Benedick, and Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus were also first perfected through hundreds of performances on stage. In Kurzel’s Macbeth, the actors sound as if they’re just reading their lines. There’s no effort made to stress certain words, or to change pitch for emphasis and elucidation. The line readings are oblivious to metre. Facial expressions and physicality serve as a substitute for dialogue.
The emphasis on physicality over language is especially evident in how Kurzel portrays the Macbeths. Not only are they the Shakespearean romantic power couple, they’re also a team. Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) are the first two characters we meet, as grieving parents at their child’s funeral, even though Lady Macbeth isn’t even mentioned in the text until late in Act I. The funeral that opens the film is pure invention, but we do know from Shakespeare’s text that they’ve lost a child as Lady Macbeth talks of having “given suck.” For a play so concerned with fathers, sons, and lineage, it’s not an unreasonable leap.
The crux of Kurzel’s interpretation is to reframe the story around a couple driven by grief, not ambition. These aren’t cold-blooded killers by nature. Their grief-stricken numbness leads them to behave reprehensibly. Ambition is an aphrodisiac to bind the broken couple together. We may be disgusted by their callousness, but we can empathize with their plight. Fassbender’s Macbeth doesn’t follow the usual arc of triumph, temptation, corruption, and destruction. His journey is a descent into depression and numbness, before he unravels into paranoia and detaches completely from both the world and his wife. Fassbender grows hunchbacked and bent, confused and volatile. It’s emotionally devastating, but this comes at the expense of all other nuance in the text.
Kurzel picks up on textual cues about how the couple relate to one another and translates them into cinematic gestures: he makes use of the content of the text without showing us how he got there with the text. The couple share a mind, which Shakespeare communicates by having them literally finish each other’s lines of verse. Cotillard and Fassbender can also practically read each other’s minds, but their shared connection happens through glances and physical proximity rather than language. Here, they pause between each line, letting silence communicate what words can’t — entirely ignoring how the Bard’s structure does the same thing.
Every image in the film is constructed to mirror Macbeth’s subconscious grief, blurring the natural and the supernatural. We’re always in Macbeth’s head, even when he’s not speaking. It’s never clear if the Weird Sisters are real: the references to witchcraft in the text have been excised and the sisters only speak when Macbeth is present. We see children onscreen everywhere because Macbeth always feels the absence of his child. Two of the Weird Sisters are mothers. When the men return home from war, Kurzel lingers on the greeting between Banquo and his son Fléance, which Macbeth gloomily notices. The film takes on a surreal quality.
The strength of Kurzel’s film is in translating the text to a completely visual and visceral cinematic experience, giving us something the stage never could. Shakespeare’s descriptions of offstage action become voice-over to the action Kurzel depicts on screen. The witches’ prophecies come as flash forwards just as Macbeth’s guilt often returns to him in quick flashbacks. The friendship between Macbeth and Banquo is efficiently established by showing them side-by-side in battle after battle, working as a team, in two-shot.
The battle scenes are Kurzel’s crowning achievement: gloriously shot, intermittently muted in slow-motion, but mostly full of the cacophonous clashing of swords with legions of choreographed fights in frame. The final battle scene finds Malcolm’s army marching forward in silhouette, literal walking shadows, against a blood-red and orange background. But it’s telling that the most memorable scenes are those without any dialogue at all.