Contains spoilers (if that’s possible!)
After reading many glowing reviews from critics, I was really looking forward to Macbeth (2015, rated 15, 113 mins). I enjoyed the book and various theatre productions but I’ve always been a “film guy” when it comes down to it. Classic text, excellent actors, beautiful cinematography – what could go wrong?
Well let’s start at the beginning. The film opens strongly, with one of a few clever tweaks this version makes to the established story. Taking reference from one of Lady Macbeth’s later speeches we see her and her husband at their child’s funeral, as the witches watch on and deliver their first prophecy. It’s a brisk and effective set-up, with the potential to add some much needed sympathy to the eponymous couple. However, it’s also pretty much the only scene we ever get to help us feel anything for them and their grief seems soon forgotten. Sadly, it’s also mostly downhill from here.
We head quickly to battle and a get tantalising glimpses of a stylish and visceral first assault. The fighters are young, the battle is bloody but it is so brief that it gives little chance to explore Macbeth as a leader or the impact it has on his state of mind. Instead, he quickly spots the weird sisters and freezes as the battle gives way to slow-motion, lingering close-ups and echoey sound direction. As a moment this could be really effective but it’s as if director Justin Kurzel slams on the brakes and then forgets to ever take them off. The scene is basically the film in a nutshell, full of promise but without ever getting going. Brevity at the expense of character. Stylish but hollow.
My main complaints with the film were the pacing and lack of character development. For example, I’ve always felt Macbeth’s motivation a bit thin and his descent from fighter to king-slayer to crazed dictator uncomfortably fast but here it is ridiculous. This is surely a consequence of the 113 min running time but it’s frustrating that so much time is taken up with establishing mood and place and so little with establishing character. Ambition, prophesy and a persuasive wife are fine but are they enough to drive a successful general to regicide? How about the trauma of losing a child, a bloody war and a growing resentment of either or both? I’d have like to seen this or other theories explored. Also, how did Lady Macbeth go from “a little water clears us” to “out, damned spot!”? I wanted to know more.
It didn’t help that events sometimes play out more like a series of scenes and soliloquies than a cohesive story. At worst, it’s like a child’s story or a Wikipedia plot summary where this happens and then this happens and then this happens without motivation, connection or much consequence. Perhaps this too came from the desire to be brief and there is a cutting room floor somewhere with the rest of a decent film on it, but it made for a largely soulless and unengaging two hours. How can a story about murder, madness and revenge be so dull? Why care about the climactic fight when the two characters appear to barely know each other?
This lack of engagement feels even more of a shame given the acting talent involved. The witches were excellent – suitable “weird sisters” but grounded in a version of reality. Fassbender and Cottilard were good but not fantastic but I wonder how much of this was down to them – key speeches were all faraway stares and fixed expressions, usually filmed in close up on a largely static face. In fact, overall I found the direction quite intrusive and the moody shots overdone and occasionally even comical (Macbeth’s warm-up for the final showdown could have been a musical montage). There were, however, some nice touches such as the fade in from the opening credits imitating a rising theatre curtain. Also, when the camera did pull back, the cinematography was admittedly gorgeous showing off a harsh, rugged but beautiful Scotland.
So I’m left wondering how did the film get such good reviews? It’s rare that I disagree so violently with the critics (Under the Skin was probably the last time) but it’s always interesting when it happens. I’m sure some people will enjoy it but, for me, what could have been Macbeth retold as a taught, urgent revenge thriller became an empty, disjointed bore. A tale told by talented people (no, not idiots) but lacking the necessary “sound and fury” and, yes, signifying nothing.