Cinema Shakespeare: Macbeth

The highlight of my trip to see Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, was my dad’s assessment afterwards that, once she realized Macbeth couldn’t take the heat, Lady Macbeth should have just killed him and taken care of ruling herself.

Aside from some striking visuals and some very dodgy Scottish accents, the film highlighted for me two major difficulties with translating Shakespeare to film, neither of which director Justin Kurzel successfully accounted for.

1. Shakespeare is not naturalism.

Film often is. This film certainly tries to be, generally eschewing Shakespeare’s anachronistic castles for the villages of early Scotland. I will happily concede their more ‘realistic’ interpretation of the movement of Birnam Wood is also beautiful. But in general, the dramatic cinema tendency speak low and slow is deadly to good verse delivery. The monotone, raspy whisper that seems to be a staple of period drama renders the poetry nonsensical, delivered as it is without emphasis or shaping of the verse lines. Delivered in the currently-fashionable understated style of Oscar nominees, every scene sounds basically the same. The characters exist in three modes: naturalistic mumbling, madness, or sorrow. This makes for dialogue that is not only monotonous, but difficult to understand if you don’t know the play already.

2. What is all this poetry for?

During one of Macbeth’s soliloquies– I’ll be honest, I can’t remember which– I found myself wondering ‘why is this happening?’ It, along with the retained descriptions of Duncan’s dead body, made me very aware of the extent to which Shakespeare’s poetry was intended to stand in for things the audience couldn’t see– scenery, battlefields, corpses, even the actors’ expressions. These all happen to be things that contemporary film audiences can see very, very well. Seeing the turmoil on Fassbender’s face and hearing him talk about how upset he was felt just as redundant as hearing Macduff describe Duncan’s murdered corpse while the camera lingered on a shot of it. I came way with the distinct feeling that you really only need one or the other… which does suggest that a fundamental element of Shakespeare and a fundamental element of film are somewhat incompatible.

These are both setting aside some of the other narrative choices of the adaptation, most of which I didn’t like, but are certainly within their rights as adaptors to add. These two points seemed to me to be the most egregious misunderstandings of how Shakespeare as writer functions, and what all those words they were muttering and shouting were actually for.

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