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New Release Review - MACBETH

Latest screen adaptation of 'The Scottish Play'.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Elizabeth Debicki, Marion Cotillard, Sean harris, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Paddy Considine




"In Kurzel's hands, Macbeth resembles a two hour promo for a rugby final, or a Guinness commercial directed by Zack Snyder; all sound and fury, signifying nothing."



Following its premiere at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Justin Kurzel's adaptation of 'The Scottish Play' received a 10 minute standing ovation. At the conclusion of my screening, I felt like applauding for a similar amount of time, merely out of gratitude that the experience had finally ended. In Kurzel's hands, Macbeth resembles a two hour promo for a rugby final.
Willy the Shake's home is the stage, but despite this, filmmakers continue to attempt to transfer his works to the medium of cinema. The results are rarely pretty. Shakespeare's work, for all its drama, is anathema to cinema, storytelling through language rather than images. The more faithful a filmmaker is to the text, the less cinematic the resulting movie becomes.
The single greatest piece of Shakespeare on screen can be found in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, a simple close up of Victor Mature's Doc Holliday reciting Hamlet. In this scene, we become aware that we're watching an actor playing a character playing another character. When we go to the theatre, we go to watch actors act. When we go the movies, we go to watch actors pretend not to act. When you transfer Shakespeare to the screen, this artifice is immediately broken, and we're always aware that we're watching performers, making it difficult to invest ourselves in the drama.
When Godard signed on to adapt King Lear for Canon Films, who cynically believed all it would take to bag an Oscar would be to combine Shakespeare with a revered auteur, he made it two pages into the play before dismissing it as 'merde'. His King Lear is considered blasphemous by Shakespearean purists, as he used the film to exam linguistics and launch an attack on English literature and the limitations of language. It's the best Shakespeare movie ever made, however, simply because it understands all too well that Shakespeare isn't at home on the screen.
Of course, there are worthwhile Shakespeare movies, those made by actors turned directors like Olivier, Welles and Branagh, but they understand that attempting to make something cinematic out of the bard is pointless, and instead give us elegant productions that are nevertheless essentially filmed plays, allowing us to revel in the performances and the words. In recent decades we've seen filmmakers like Baz Luhrman, Ralph Fiennes and now Kurzel attempt to dazzle us with visuals that work against, rather than compliment the text. Kurzel's Macbeth suggests he has little interest in the source material, bombarding us with cutaway images and flashy tricks that are at times unintentionally giggle inducing, like a time lapse shot of Fassbender's Macbeth standing at the foot of his bed as night turns to day, like the heroine of Paranormal Activity. The many slo-mo battle shots resemble a Guinness commercial directed by Zack Snyder. The camera shakes, tracks or cuts away completely during the play's main monologues, doing Cotillard and Fassbender a grave disservice.
A major hurdle here is the impenetrable dialogue, mumbled incoherently in thick Scottish brogues, through big bushy beards, without the aid of subtitles. Forced to quit attempting to follow what any of the characters are saying, we eventually give up and treat the movie like a silent film, but it doesn't hold up, as Kurzel doesn't use pictures to tell the story; instead it's all in Willy's exposition. Kurzel would have done well to study Andrea Arnold's magnificently cinematic adaptation of Wuthering Heights, a piece of classic English literature truly adapted for a medium of moving images. On the other hand, how do you apply the golden rule of cinema, 'Show, don't tell', to Shakespeare, the finest 'teller' that ever lived? Probably best not to, but plenty have, and plenty will, and we'll be forced to sit through more mind-numbing, misjudged adaptations like this, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.



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