How long have we been waiting for this movie? I first wrote about it (when it was rumored that Natalie Portman would play Lady Macbeth) in April 2013, two and a half years ago. Was it worth the wait?
I think it’s difficult to review movie versions of Shakespeare plays, because there’s the inevitable clash of expectations between what the viewer wants to see, and the story the director wants to tell. When we go see a staged Shakespeare, we pretty much always get the story we expected, with the only real room for interpretation coming in the characters, rather than the action. Moviemakers seem far more likely to say “Ok, I’m going to take the Shakespeare story up to this point, but then I’m going to do my own thing.”
This version is definitely one of those. While watching there were at least three instances where I made this face:
(* Yes I know precisely the context for that original image, that’s why it’s funny 😉
I don’t really want to give spoilers, but let me put it this way – this Macbeth likes to kill people in front of other people. It’s not just that there are witnesses, either. At one point he makes it a public spectacle. Yeah. The film clearly goes right for the “Macbeth is crazy and everybody knows it, but he’s also the king now so what are ya gonna do?” vibe pretty much immediately. I suppose it’s a way to go, but it was certainly different from what I’m used to seeing.
I’m not a fan of the directorial style, either, which has got a lot of 300 going for it, if you remember that movie. When a sword hits a body, expect to switch to slow motion so you can watch the blood fly. Then switch back to fast forward to get the audience nauseous. I could actually live with the nauseating camera work, especially during the battle scenes, because isn’t chaos kind of the point? I don’t really go to movies to say, “Oh, cool, look what the director chose to do there.” It’s like special effects – the best choices are the ones that make you forget you’re watching a movie at all, rather than reminding you of it.
Speaking quickly about special effects – there are none. In this movie about witches and ghosts, there are no sudden apparitions, appearances or disappearances. The witches just kind of wander in, say their thing, then wander out. Which is a way to go, I suppose, but then we cut to Macbeth running down a hill saying, “DID YOU SEE WHERE THEY WENT? THEY JUST VANISHED!” Really? You lost them that fast? It was almost a weird throwback to what you might see on stage where the actors really do have to exit the old fashioned way. Only … have you seen Teller’s Macbeth? I’ve seen witches disappear on stage. It’s pretty cool.
There’s also no ghosts to speak of. I mean, they’re there, but they’re just played by the exact same actors with no change in physical appearance. Again, it’s an interesting way to go – I guess it’s supposed to reinforce the idea that, to Macbeth, they’re real? But for a movie that’s ok with all the slow motion / fast forward / blood spattery things, it just felt lazy to me that they didn’t do *something* with the idea. Are we supposed to be seeing the world as Macbeth sees it? Or seeing Macbeth as the world sees him? I don’t think you can have both at the same time.
Ok, let’s get to some good stuff, because there is some.
There’s children everywhere. You’ve probably read in other reviews that the movie opens (as do many interpretations) with the funeral for the Macbeths’ child. We then switch over to a scene that I thought was something right out of Henry V as Macbeth and his battle-hardened warriors (who have been so made up with injury that they look like orcs out of a Lord of the Rings movie, by the way) come to meet the reinforcements that Duncan has sent them … and they’re all pretty much children. So Macbeth and the others prepare the new soldiers for battle, teaching them how to properly prepare their weapons, painting their faces with war paint, and you and Macbeth know full well that most of these kids are about to die really badly. This bookends nicely at the end of the movie when Macbeth sees the progression of ghosts – the same children that he took into battle at the beginning.
But that’s not all. We see Banquo with Fleance (obviously), but we also see Macduff with his children on several occasions. There’s even one scene where Macbeth wanders through camp and stops to interact with some children playing. Maybe it was a bit heavy handed, but I liked it.
Now let’s talk about the Macbeths. They’ve been called one of the greatest couples in all of Shakespeare’s works. Just watching the two of them can be fascinating, and we can let all the other weirdness with changing the plot slide.
It took about two sentences for me to think, “Ok, Lady Macbeth is nuts.” Seriously. I don’t have the original text memorized to the point where I know how much was cut, she goes from zero to sixty in a single scene:
Macbeth: “Honey, I’m home from battle. The king’s coming to dinner.”
Lady M: “Let’s kill him.”
I’m being a bit facetious there obviously, but only a bit. The pacing feels like it’s been sped up, and it works. Everything in the first half moves very quickly, and Lady M is the driving force. They don’t cut Macbeth’s uncertainty, or his wife’s “Are you a man?” speech.
Here’s where it gets really interesting, though. After “it’s done,” Lady M seems satisfied. So when her husband tells her that Banquo has to go, she starts to worry, and keeps trying to tell him that it’s over, it’s done, they got what they wanted. But she realizes quickly that she’s created a monster that she cannot control. She’s completely helpless in the second part of the movie, and can really do no more than beg her husband to leave well enough alone, but he doesn’t listen to her. The line “What’s done is done” is repeated several times, to emphasize the point. She started it, she wanted it over, but she could not be the one to say when it would be over. So when she loses her mind, we understand why.
Let’s talk a bit about the ending. I’ve always thought the end is one of the best parts. How will the “Lay on, Macduff” line play out? Is Macbeth still trying to win? Has he resigned himself to the inevitable? I’ve often wondered, does he truly believe he’s immortal at this point? If so, that makes his “at least we’ll die with harness on our back” line a little unusual. Unless you figure that he’s just saying that to motivate his troops.
True to the rest of the movie, the final battle is over the top violent. There’s no old fashioned “run through with a sword” move. It’s all a slice here and a gash there, and you wonder when one of them is just going to fall down from blood loss. That detracts from the scene in my opinion, because as the climax of the movie the director wants to make it last, but the longer it lasts the less realistic it looks.
I won’t spoil how it goes down, but I will say that I was ok with it. It’s different. Didn’t love it, but I get it.
Speaking of which … there’s an entirely separate ending that the director adds to this one, that Shakespeare did not write. So when you think it’s done, there’s still a few more minutes. Eh. Nice touch, I suppose, but I found it completely unnecessary unless we should expect Macbeth 2 next summer.
I’ll end with two trivial things that drove me a little crazy. First, the porter scene is cut, but this makes sense based on how they set the play. What annoyed me is that later in the play, Lady M still has her, “There’s a knocking at the gate!” line. Sure, she’s crazy, she’s hallucinating. But when you’ve made it a point to give us a setting where the whole idea of “gate” is not relevant, why leave that line in there? Maybe we can shrug and say it’s supposed to be some sort of “knocking at the gates of hell” thing.
The second one is just lazy in my view. We know that Banquo’s going to die and Fleance escapes, right? That’s not a spoiler. Ok, here’s the thing. Banquo goes down via crossbow. And Fleance runs away.
Banquo goes down via crossbow, and Fleance runs away.
That bug anybody else? Hey, assassins, you’ve got a long range weapon and have just demonstrated your accuracy with it. How about shooting at the fleeing enemy, instead of chasing and losing him? At least shoot and miss, to let the audience know that you didn’t forget you have it. I said before that I don’t like when the director reminds me I’m watching a movie, and this is one of those examples. They clearly went with the arrow so we could get a jump scare rather than a confrontation. But if you’re going to establish that the bad guys have that weapon, you have to be consistent!
Ok, I’m done. As with any Shakespeare there were parts I liked, but in general I can’t say I loved it. I’m glad I did not bring my wife. It’s not the kind of thing that I’ll show the kids when it comes out on DVD (apparently they’re already taking pre-orders). Years down the road when we compare notes about Shakespearean film adaptations and people talk about the McKellen/Dench Macbeth, or Patrick Stewart’s, I don’t think anybody’s going to be talking about this one.