Macbeth – Michael Fassbender’s flawed hero king.

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I’m always intrigued to see how a Shakespeare play will be approached, particularly when the constraints of the stage are removed and a director is given free rein to adapt and interpret through the medium of film.

I had read a few reviews of the 2015 version of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender in the lead role and was keen to see it.

Macbeth is not a play that I am particularly familiar with, despite studying at school. I found it a hard slog at the time and have avoided going to see it live ever since. It has always felt too dark and morbid with unsympathetic characters, motivated by greed and ambition, so I wasn’t surprised with the moodily evocative filming and all the rain or the nod to ‘Game of Thrones’ which seems to influence so much tv drama at the moment. I was ready for gratuitous throat-slitting, if not quite prepared for burning small children and a cycle of ruthlessness and revenge set in a grim and forbidding landscape without hope.

I actually enjoyed it much more than I was expecting to, largely due to a combination of interesting casting and deeply internalised performances which moved me and drew me into the plot. For the first time ever I felt pity and compassion for the Macbeths and their bleak existence despite still having misgivings about how quickly Macbeth seemed to abandon his honour in pursuit of power.

The opening scene introduces a new back story of loss and grief to the couple with the death of their only child and it’s little funeral pyre. Everything that transpires is a result of this bitter blow to their happiness, their future and their relationship. It goes some way to explain why lady Macbeth would urge her husband to regicide in order to fill the great void in her life and why he would agree to do it. The driving emotion in the film is despair rather than ambition and this makes their characters far more nuanced and empathetic and much easier to engage with though it still requires a hefty suspension of disbelief to understand why they would really want the crown when the benefits seems so insubstantial!

Macbeth goes into battle with the ferocity of a Viking berserker, perhaps because he has no fear of death and no desire to carry on living particularly either. His good nature is played out in the touching pre-battle moments when he ties the sword into the young boy’s hand and paints his face with strange tribal markings reminiscent of ‘Braveheart’.

These are funerary rites as much as rites of passage as he seems to know the boy’s fate already. He is a reminder of the innocent child he has already watch burn and the injustices of the kind of hard, unforgiving life they are doomed to live. The young soldier will return to haunt him and guide his actions later in the film; not so much a guardian angel as a dark, supernatural urging which will drive Macbeth on to his own fateful end.

Fassbender’s Macbeth is grim and pained, even in victory. Despite winning the field and the prophecy of the ‘weird sisters’ who he encounters there, the camera dwells on the bodies of the slaughtered and the grave pits. We see how Macbeth’s ambition for the crown is a product of his experience of suffering and loss rather than blood lust or glory.

Macbeth sends back a report of the prophecy that he shall be ‘king hereafter’ to his wife, who waits for him alone at their home and delivers the head of his king’s enemy to his lord in person. Duncan suspects nothing from his loyal commander and offers Macbeth the title of his fallen enemy – Thane of Cordor as well as Glamis – just as the weird sisters predicted and commands Macbeth to go home and prepare for his arrival where they will celebrate the victory together.

There isn’t much time to build any kind of relationship between Macbeth and Duncan and this is perhaps a weakness because Macbeth’s betrayal of his king would be all the more shocking if the viewer felt that there were deep bonds of reciprocal loyalty and love between them. In other history plays Shakespeare is at great pains to emphasize the unnatural nature of regicide in every aspect of the crime. Here, we are to fill in the gap with our own thoughts about how a man who has sworn loyalty to his king and been well rewarded for his efforts can murder him while he sleeps as a guest under his protection in such a manner based solely on a strange meeting with some women on the moors and his wife’s urgings.

Macbeth’s home is very reminiscent of the set for Vikings. It is a pretty small scale, bleak affair with a nod to Christianity in the form of a wooden church and various dwellings scattered about. There don’t seem to be many people about though enough children to form a rustic choir to entertain the king when he arrives. Before this scene, however, we see Lady Macbeth working her poison into the hero’s mind.

She has already knelt in the church and divested herself of her femininity in order to help Macbeth to his destiny when she receives news of the prophesy. Due to the introduction of a lost child we empathize with her anguished state much more than if she was just a cold-hearted murderess. If we believe that Macbeth is suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder from his experiences on the battlefield then we can also believe that she is unhinged by her grief and looking for a future which will help to erase the past.

Does she really think that by a single act of murder their lives can be mended? Does she still kneel in church because she believes in a God at all or only from force of habit because other prayers have gone unanswered and other pains have had to be borne and will continue to drain her to the dregs? Does she renounce the gentleness and mercy of her sex because God has taken her child from her and she no longer wants to be a woman? Her bitterness at nature, turns nature against itself and she resolves to be like a man and live for ambition as she has been denied motherhood. Shakespeare sees his female characters through the prism of his times, even given his bold characterization and ability to see beyond the stereo-types of his age and thus her ambition and steely determination are emphasized as unnatural to her sex and abhorrent.

There is a taunting aspect to the way that Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to murder the king. She keeps testing him and urging him ‘to be a man’. Does she use his own feelings of inadequacy to spur him on or are they both inadequate for their natural purposes – she unable to conceive and he unable to give her healthy offspring and so doomed to look for other means to fulfil their amibitions? It certainly erks him greatly that Banquo has a son to follow him and that his sons will be kings of Scotland while he has no heir.

The key scene between them in the church where they discuss the murder of Duncan has an element of seduction which is there in the play too. The old idea that man is tempted to his fall by woman and her whiles. He is somehow emasculated and weakened in his honour by his love for her and she goads him further by accusing him of weakness in fearing to act. The sexual elements of their relationship are all out of step and illusionary. They only ever half make love, then their grief steps between them and separates them. We see this here in the church and later on the floor after their coronation when he chides her for her inability to give him sons and holds a dagger to her stomach. The bond is there between them at every point of connection but they have moved far away from each other because neither can comfort the other in their distress. It is one of the most true and moving aspects of their characterisation and works very effectively on film where even a single tear speaks volumes. They can not heal themselves or comfort each other and their decisions bring ruin to all.

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So, Macbeth resolves to kill his king and, as with his defiance on the battlefield, seems unconcerned about being intercepted as he walks past the sleeping guards and stabs him repeatedly. Perhaps he is still in the dream trance state where the ghost of the dead boy comes to him and offers him the dagger to do the deed. He seems to sleep-walk his way to murder and have no thought for what will come afterwards, even forgetting to leave the murder weapons behind at the scene. He returns to Lady Macbeth and taints her with Duncan’s blood upon his hands which will never be washed away. She returns and places the daggers in the hands of the drugged guards and uses Duncan’s blood to mark them as the killers before returning to the church to try and hide the evidence of their guilt.

At first the rain inside the church bothered me until I realised they were making use of the bell tower opening and the severity of the storm for symbolic purposes. Shakespeare likes his water imagery, just as he has Richard II proclaim that all the water in the rough, rude sea can not wash the holy balm from his flesh, so he has the Macbeths trying to negate their crime by washing their hands of it, like Pontius Pilate. What better location than the church to do this in, the holy place defiled by her renunciation of her sex, their plotting and seduction and now the blood of their shared crime. You get the feeling that Christianity hasn’t gone very deep in this culture and that Pagan forces are everywhere around them.

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Baptismal imagery as Macbeth tries to wash off his crimes and be re-born as the new king.

 

 

At first Lady Macbeth seems the more seasoned villain. She brushes off the murder and reassures her husband that a little water will rid them of their guilt but ultimately it will weigh her down first and destroy her. We see Macbeth immerse himself in the icy waters of the lake and rise out of them like a newly baptised Christian but his sins are not washed away even if his crime is hidden by new clothes. He carries his scars on him through this film, still marked by the wounds of the first battle scene to the end. This is more than just a means of showing the hardness of these men or of playing Shakespeare ‘in the raw’ as well as ‘in the round’ for the camera. Director, Justin Kurzel wants us to understand that the characters are formed by their traumas and are incapable of casting things off. Lady Macbeth says several times ‘what has been done can not be undone’ and this echoes through the film at every level. They can not erase their experience, can not cast off their guilt or rise above their shared history to find a d new future together.

Macduff arrives and discovers the blood soaked corpse of his king. Macbeth barely tries to create an alibi or feign surprise but does take punitive action against the catatonic guards and stabs them both in summary trial and execution which seems to arouse MacDuff’s suspicions. Duncan’s son, Malcom, has already fled the scene which causes suspicion to fall on him and Macbeth is elected king with lightening efficiency though again Macduff seems unnerved and cautious at this rapid turn of events, as does Banquo, Macbeth’s friend and confidente.

Macbeth’s relationship with Banquo is an odd one in this film. Banquo was with Macbeth on the battlefield and saw the weird sisters too. They also prophesied that his sons should be great kings in the future as well as his friend become king hereafter and he seems content to let destiny unfold but he also seems wary of his old comrade now that he is king and with just cause. As with Duncan, there is little attempt at creating a believable relationship between Macbeth and Banquo. We are supposed to believe that they have a long back-story of friendship and loyalty based on one small scene of them sharing a muddy trench for the night and a quick chat on the beach before Macbeth orders his murder though the beach scene is nicely done and poignant, considering that Banquo has little time left on the Earth. We see a fleeting resurrection of the old Macbeth in his sad smile to his friend before his neurosis returns.

Shakespeare often has his kings falling into paranoia once they are crowned. The burdens of kingship include the fear of being supplanted or deposed. Paranoia usually takes the form of trying to wipe out any possible threats to their security, which leads to tyranny and oppression, resulting in open rebellion and their ultimate downfall. Shakespeare would have us believe that Edward IV did away with his brother Clarence because of a prophesy that ‘G’ would wear the crown and so Macbeth becomes immediately eaten up with fear that Banquo and his heir will one day displace him and therefore arranges for their murder in the woods. Is it all really the weird sisters’ fault? If they hadn’t spoken Macbeth would have lived out his life in honour and saved himself the anguish of watching everyone he loves be destroyed by his ambition.

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A mind full of Scorpions

 

Banquo is set upon but the killers lose his little son in the woods with the intervention of the weird sisters who hide him away in order to fulfil his destiny. The same night Macbeth’s paranoia and mental instability are displayed to the whole court in the banquet scene where he speaks to Banquo’s ghost and openly interrogates his killer in front of his shocked and disconcerted guests. Lady Macbeth does her best to retrieve the situation but it is obvious that their new king has some serious issues to deal with and may not have come by the crown by honest means!

Macduff and Lady Macduff flee the court during the disturbance, thus sealing their own fate and that of their young family. Macduff rides on to England to raise a force against Macbeth and bring Duncan’s heir, Malcolm, back to re-claim his rightful inheritance.

Things start to unravel fast for Macbeth. His sanity is compromised by his crimes, not only the regicide of his king but the murder of his friend and his order to kill his son. More innocents are piled onto his conscience as he orders the capture and burning of Lady Macduff and her children in revenge for Macduff’s flight.

I understand the need to make their deaths shocking and disturbing in order to give weight to the motivation for the final showdown between Macduff and Macbeth at the end of the film but I do feel that perhaps the urge to compete with other recent film work overtook the director. Many modern adaptations cut the murder scene fearing that modern audiences will find the stabbing of a young child too unpalatable but here the director choses to demonstrate the madness of Macbeth by having him burn the mother and three young children alive before the whole court outside his castle walls at Dunsinane! This is all very ‘Game of Thrones’, designed to demonstrate the result of paranoia and abandonment of honour in Macbeth’s soul.

This scene certainly underlines the contrast between Macbeth’s own grief at the death of his child and the lengths to which he will now go to in order to cling onto power and allows Lady Macbeth to see the full horror of what her urgings have brought to pass. Her tearful, distraught response to their suffering will lead directly to her own suicide as she realises that life has become too difficult to continue with.

Marion Cotillard is a wonderful Lady Macbeth. She is very well cast against Fassbender and her inner emotional turmoil, so internalised in this performance, is all the more telling for her cold exterior and poise. She plays Lady Macbeth as deeply damaged, deeply unhappy and unable to hold them together as a couple or to move on into the future despite her efforts to create something to fill the great void in their hearts.

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The viewer gets the impression that Lady Macbeth would not laugh again if she was given all the riches of the Earth. She is the tough one, who tries to hold things together and propel her husband forward until she watches him burn Lady Macduff and her children whereupon she crumples and loses her reason. The scene, back at the now deserted church where she talks to the ghost child in front of her is beautifully done and exceptionally moving. A murderess with such tenderness in her heart, such remorse for what has come to pass and such a longing for her dead child would move any heart to pity.

‘The Thane of Fife had a wife, where is she now?’

Her repeated line ‘Go to bed, go to bed’ is also delivered with heartfelt feeling and layers of nuance as the meaning shifts from comfort to weariness and finally to despair as she seeks out the weird sisters to take poison and end her own suffering.

Nature out of step, man made mad by his crimes and a diseased country all come together in the scene where Macbeth cradles his dead wife in his arms and asks the doctor to mend the affliction in his country only to be interrupted with the news that ten thousand English are at his gates with Macduff, bent on revenge for the murder of his family and Duncan’s son waiting to take back what is rightfully his.

Macbeth’s final hour is well done with the same slow-motion paralysis as the opening battle scene and the added visual effect of the burning wood smoke and cinders marching towards Macbeth to fulfil the last portion of the prophecy. The smoke and light effects provide an interesting visual backdrop for the dual between Macbeth and his nemesis. His army deserts him and he is left to his fate while the ghostly sisters watch on from the side-lines.

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Macbeth will not bow to Malcom, preferring death on the battlefield to further dishonour and goes down fighting to the end. Macduff shows his quality by dispatching Macbeth rather than letting him fall into enemy hands. Does he redeem himself in some small way by dying like a soldier? The viewer certainly still feels some pity for him as he slumps down beside his sword and Banquo’s son emerges from the smoke to take it and leave him behind. We await the sequel, where Banquo’s son fulfils his part in the prophesy and displaces Malcolm’s line from the throne.

Having read a few reviews before watching the film I know that there has been criticism of the film for taking liberties with the text, cutting scenes and for choosing to shoot in some bleak and disconsolate locations. There has also been muttering about the sound quality and thick Scots accents obscuring the beauty of the poetic language in the same vein as the criticism of Wolf Hall for its dark location shoots and mumbled language.

As I am not so familiar with the play I didn’t miss the edited lines and generally found it to be a good length and sensibly edited for the medium of film apart from my slight reservations about the relationships between Macbeth and Duncan and Banquo which I’ve already mentioned.

I did strain to hear every line but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the rhythms of the language or the delivery of the lines. Shakespeare can sound particularly stilted and unnatural in the medium of film and this production got it spot-on, for me. The special features include interviews with the production team and it was obvious that the actors had been very well versed in their lines and in a natural delivery with a heart-beat pulse underscoring their phrasing which, I felt, worked extremely well and kept it feeling very real and simple. I prefer Shakespeare taken at a slower pace and really digested than gabbled out or declaimed like an old stager and in that respect they all did a fine job.

As to the locations, I really enjoyed and appreciated the cinematography and evocative nature of the location shooting. The wide vistas and dramatic scenery added enormously to the spectacle of the film and to the relationship of the humans within their world and made it feel more believable.

The costumes were slightly less successful for me in terms of creating a believable C11th Scottish world. The dark colours and murky hues worked well at the beginning of the film and even the slightly homespun weave of Duncan’s royal robes was passable but I began to struggle to suspend disbelief with Lady Macbeth’s coronation robes and the jarring difference between the women’s court attire and her outfit. Her costume seemed more fantasy than anything based on historical costume whilst the other ladies suddenly seemed to be transported to the C16th with ruffs and padded skirts which were totally out of keeping with the rest of the piece.

Arms and armour specialists would also have a field-day with the chose of weapons and the wearing of swords on the back etc… Someone tries to shoot a longbow at point blank range and another ma seems to be armed with an antler which distract somewhat from the authenticity of the battle scenes but it was no worse than the recent depictions of battle in The Hollow Crown and I tried to look past these glaring examples to the overall motivation of the characters in these scenes.

The musical score was particularly effective and certainly added to the cinematic experience with its use of grinding strings, deep cello notes and a faintly Scottish air.

I am also dimly aware of controversy surrounding Shakespeare’s portrayal of the historical figure of Macbeth and that, like Richard III, there are those who are vehemently opposed to the ‘hatchet job’ done to the reputation of the real man and his wife. That’s for a different thread but it is worth saying that Raphael Holinshed has a certain amount to answer for in creating sensationalism over historical fact and Shakespeare used his imagination in spades here.

In summary, I would recommend this film to anyone interested in Shakespeare on film or historical drama, especially as an introduction to the play as it will give you a flavour of the plotlines and characters and perhaps create a more empathetic and pitiable pair of murderers. As a fan of Michael Fassbender’s work, I would endorse this film as another example of his talent and charismatic style and I came away hugely impressed by Marion Cotillard and eager to see her again after such a mesmerizing and nuanced performance. The ensemble cast were all strong, especially the child actors who were all outstanding and Macduff who managed to hold his own in every scene whilst also managing to look rather sinister for a hero figure.

Fassbender plays Macbeth in the tradition of the flawed hero figure and makes him both pitiable and believable. He is a man who could have been great but for his weaknesses and these drive him to commit acts of tyranny and cruelty which can only be resolved in his death and dishonour. Of course it is really Lady Macbeth who is the active force behind these actions and therefore should perhaps be seen as the flawed heroine at the heart of the piece. Now that would be an interpretation worth watching!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Responses to “Macbeth – Michael Fassbender’s flawed hero king.”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.

    Like

  2. timetravellingbunny Says:

    Macbeth has always been my favorite Shakespeare’s play, and one of my favorite fictional works, since I first read it at the first year of the university. It’s incredibly powerful, and I always did feel pity and compassion for the two tragic villain protagonists. And I can’t remember any lines that were cut that I missed, in fact I can barely remember what was cut, other than some superfluous stuff (the porter scene, which feels out of place in the play itself, some of Malcolm’s lines, which aren’t too interesting, the Hecate scene which is debatable in itself since it may have been added later and also feels out of place, and a few lines about Edward the Confessor, which were there just as nods to the audience/what we’d now call fanservice, and don’t have anything to do with the play itself). And the monologues and dialogues were filmed and staged in really imaginative and effective ways.

    The issue of Macbeths’ apparent lack of children has in fact been discussed a lot in Shakespearean criticism, and the backstory they chose in this film is a perfectly valid reading of the text, which has been brought up in criticism and interpretation earlier.

    When it comes to works like “Macbeth” or “Richard III”, people should simply learn to differentiate between the historical figures and the fictional characters Shakespeare created. He was no historian.

    Liked by 1 person

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