Friday, May 20, 2016

The Scottish Play's the Thing

One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Macbeth, so of course I had to check out the recent film adaptation, directed by Justin Kurzel, and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard.

Stage productions of Shakespeare often transpose the story into different times and settings, but the movies often play it straight as written. For the most part, that's true of this film. It's actually filmed in Scotland (and partly in England), and is accurate to the story's period. But it also cribs a bit from "comic book hyper realism," that style of movies like 300 and Sin City, where "real" is more than real.

Because of that choice, the film is a visual triumph. The fog in this Macbeth is tangibly thick, and is often backlit with bloody crimson light that transforms the world into a hellscape. The world feels dirty, primitive, and deadly. Shots are framed with extreme attention to detail, and you can't help but notice how beautiful it all is.

But part of why I couldn't help but notice is that I wasn't entirely engaged by the story itself. Early on, I may have been a bit distracted by looking for excisions from the original text. Knowing that the movie had a run time under two hours (from a play that usually runs at least 30 minutes more than that), there had to be cuts somewhere. But the cuts were handled deftly enough that I never truly missed them, and soon stopped hunting for them.

No, in the long run -- and much to my disappointment -- it was the performances that put me at arm's distance from the action. This is the most low key presentation of dramatic Shakespeare I think I've ever seen. Certainly, some allowances should be made for the fact that the bombastic acting style of the stage is not appropriate to the close-up, intimate possibilities of a movie. Still, I felt there were very few scenes where any of the characters let any real emotion show.

Fassbender was shockingly stony as Macbeth, barely getting worked up for murder, ghost sightings, or anything else. Cotillard matched his lack of energy as Lady Macbeth, displaying little of the fiery indignation that seems required to me by the text. It's odd, because those two were widely praised by critics among a cast that was praised too. But where others apparently saw compelling nuance, I saw disengaging lethargy.

To be sure, Macbeth could be done far, far worse than this. But I've personally seen it done far better. I give this incarnation a C-.

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