not in our stars, but in ourselves
51/52: A movie in your native language
Not that I want to bog you all down with the reasons behind each film I’ve chosen for each category, I would like to explain this one a little bit. Since this entire movie challenge originated on Tumblr, where there are plenty of non-anglophone users, this entry has potential to be much more worldly and obscure among them. I follow French people, Russian people, Dutch people, German people, Nigerian people, Croatian people, Mexican people, Swedish people, Australian people – oh, wait, sorry, those last do technically speak English. (I kid ’cause I love.) They would all be able to tap into their various – forgive the term, please, as I know it’s a bit problematic – national cinemas, and enlighten the rest of us anglophone swine. As such, I wanted to focus specifically on the English language for this challenge – and in discussing modern English as a language, it is absolutely impossible to ignore the contribution of William Shakespeare. When I realized that Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth would be released in the U.S. in 2015 (albeit only barely), I knew I had a winner. My native language, my language’s literature, my language’s art and culture and way of understanding itself and everyone else, would be terribly impoverished without Shakespeare. Macbeth is, of course, one of the Bard’s most famous plays, but I was impressed with how Kurzel was able to make it feel visceral and real. This isn’t airy, abstract theatre. This is bloody, brutal body horror. Or, as one Twitter film critic put it:
In eleventh-century Scotland, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) hold a funeral for their baby daughter. Not long after the funereal pyre has died down, Macbeth is off to fight in a hard and horrible civil war. Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, leads his army to victory in defense of King Duncan (David Thewlis), but they suffer heavy losses. On the battlefield, he sees three women, a young girl, and a baby. They tell him that he’ll be Thane of Cawdor and King of Scotland, and that his friend Banquo (Paddy Considine) will be father of kings. Unbeknownst to Macbeth, Duncan is so pleased with Macbeth’s victory that he’s stripped the treasonous Thane of Cawdor of his title, and awarded it to Macbeth instead. When Macbeth finds out, he is amazed and troubled. Lady Macbeth is simply determined. She convinces her husband to murder Duncan in his sleep so that the prophecy can come true. He does so, and he’s crowned king. His reign descends into disaster almost as soon as it begins: when he realizes that Banquo is suspicious, he orders assassins to kill him and his young son. The son escapes, but Banquo dies in the forest. At a grand banquet, Macbeth sees Banquo’s dirty, bloody ghost, and ruins the party. Duncan’s former right-hand man, Macduff (Sean Harris), is so disgusted that he flees to England to fetch Duncan’s son and an army. This enrages Macbeth, and he orders Macduff’s wife and children to be burned at the stake. Lady Macbeth cracks under the strain, and dies – a much quieter and less violent death than anyone else. The Weird Sisters tell Macbeth that he won’t be defeated until Birnam Wood rises to Dunsinane Hill, and he’ll be slain by one not born of woman. Macduff sets fire to Birnam Wood, as the wind carries the ash and smoke up to Dunsinane; and then, in brutal hand-to-hand combat, reveals that he was ripped from his mother’s womb – i.e., not technically born of woman. Macbeth surrenders, and is killed. Scotland has a few more centuries of gruesome struggle ahead of it – but that will be a subject for another play.
Sometimes, Shakespeare seems to befuddle filmmakers. Either they film it straight, and risk boring their cinematic audiences to tears; or they employ gimmicks so crass and craven that one wonders if poor old Will from Stratford-on-Avon is spinning so hard in his grave that he’s about to drill his way out. Perhaps it’s because film people are simply schooled differently than theatre people, and have difficulty reconciling wall-to-wall monologues and soliloquies and dick jokes (tons of dick jokes) with the visual fluency required of any good movie. Kurzel joins the ranks of directors who’ve figured out the balancing act. He doesn’t sacrifice Shakespeare’s writing in the name of his visuals – but he doesn’t skimp on the visuals, either. Indeed, this is some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve seen all year. While I’m rooting for a Fury Road sweep at the Oscars next year, I won’t be upset if Macbeth‘s D.P., Adam Arkapaw, sneaks in and wins Best Cinematography.
More than just looking good and honoring a standby of English literature, however, Macbeth is given so much heft, so much grit and pain and horror. We are in eleventh-century Scotland. War is not merely hell, but also terribly intimate: no shooting at your enemy from a few hundred feet away. Macbeth and his soldiers strap their swords to their hands and literally leap at the men in the opposing army. They wear heavy clothing and leather, but no armor strong enough to withstand a hard stab with a dirk. Their throats are exposed. They don’t wear helmets, so those who survive are usually heavily scarred. They’re covered in mud, blood, rust, and who knows what else. It’s hard to look at sometimes, to be honest, but that’s the idea: these are real bodies. They are butchering each other. This is the history of my people (you might gather from my username that I am indeed of Scottish descent), and it’s written in gallons of blood.
On historical accuracy: this article about the costumes, and their wide-ranging influence – from Vikings to samurai – is a must-read. This wasn’t a time or a place for grandeur, for comfort, or for elaborate materials. It makes sense that the Scots would have adopted some of the fashions (if that’s the word to use here) from their Norse neighbors. It also makes sense that they would have used the limited resources at their disposal to improvise some sort of armor against the elements, whether the howling winds and mists or the flying swords and arrows. It can’t be a coincidence that, between the costumes, the fog, and the source material, Kurzel was intentionally paying homage to one of the best Shakespeare adaptations of all time: I noted at times, while I watched, that the men’s war attire looked a lot like that of a samurai; and I noted, too, that Lady Macbeth looked quite a lot like Throne of Blood‘s Lady Asaji at times. Unintentional plagiarism is, I’d say, extremely unlikely – so good on ya, Justin.
Is it a perfect movie? No, I can’t claim that it is. Sometimes the editing seemed to muddy the scene more than necessary. Sometimes the more sexual aspects of the Macbeths’ marriage – whether Lady Macbeth using her feminine wiles to insult and excite her husband into killing the king, or Macbeth teetering dangerously on the edge of assaulting his wife after he’s king and losing his mind – were a bit overdone and obvious. That wasn’t insurmountable, however. It was very likely that an ambitious woman like Lady Macbeth would use the one power at her disposal to get her way in a virulently masculine world, after all. And it was (and is) pretty likely that a man who’s gone mad with both power and the fear of losing that power would threaten anyone who came close to him – especially his wife.
In fact, that brings me back to one of the things I liked most about this adaptation, and that allows me to highlight the actors: even though the Weird Sisters exist, and seem to prophesy Macbeth’s ascent, the film never implies that they’re anything more than psychic. They aren’t using magic, in other words, to manipulate the fate of Scotland. They plant ideas in Macbeth’s head – ideas that grow and bear rotten fruit. Everything that happens is due to Macbeth’s choice and Lady Macbeth’s urging – and Fassbender and Cotillard play each twist to perfection. Fassbender’s physicality is just what you would expect of a lord who’d fought however many miserable battles – long, lean, powerful, hungry – so he looks the part. A well-fed Macbeth would strain the suspension of disbelief. Fassbender is also, obviously, a hell of an actor. He growls his soliloquies, imbuing them with nascent horror and guilt and, finally, despair. Kurzel has made Macbeth’s tragedy one of choice, not magic, and Fassbender plays it wonderfully well. Cotillard, for her part, plays Lady Macbeth as a woman who – understandably – wants more out of life than the leaky little hovel in the middle of a moor that she and her husband share at the start. It’s not evil in any religious or philosophic way; it’s ambition. Perhaps ambition is a sort of social evil – but neither Kurzel nor anyone else bothers trying to make a message out of that question. And finally, Fassbender and Cotillard both operate as two parents who have just lost their child. Is this some sort of psychotic grief? Has their mourning deepened and hardened into the kind of nihilism that allows them to murder those they’ve sworn to protect and honor? I think the performances point that way.
All in all, this stands as a vital, visceral, gruesome, and glorious Macbeth. Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotillard et al. have made Shakespeare come alive – by going right back to the roots, right back to the history that inspired him. They’ve liberated him from musty textbooks, from dusty theatres, from mediocre filmed plays, and brought him right into the beating, bloody heart of cinema. Hail Macbeth.