Parental Guidance
By Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Justin Kurzel, U.K., The Weinstein Company

The inherent durability of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth as raw material for the screen is attested to by the various and disparate adaptations of note that have appeared through the decades and from around the world. We have versions from Orson Welles (1948), Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan (1971), and a 1982 effort by a young Béla Tarr mostly in one take, as well as Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), which removes the action of the play from eleventh century Scotland to feudal Japan. Now enter Justin Kurzel’s crack at the Scottish play, starring Michael Fassbender as the ambitious highlander and Marion Cotillard as his wife, a film whose vaulting ambition is brought to earth by the counterfeiting of funereal monotony for tragic heft.

The adapted screenplay, a liberal condensing of the text that brings in the whole affair just shy of two hours, is credited to the trio of Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso. They have made most of the expected trims—the Porter, bearer of little-loved whiskey-dick comic relief, has been disinvited, as has become almost customary by now—as well as a few noteworthy additions. The first and most notable of these is evident straightaways, in a prologue preceding a blood-red text crawl (“Civil war rages in Scotland…”) in which Mr. & Mrs. Macbeth are seen presiding over the funeral of their deceased child. The film’s opening image is of his small body reposing on a bed of heather, pale face marred by some unnamed pox. Thus the Macbeths, whose lust to power has often been attributed to the failure of their union to produce issue, are here identified as delirious with still-recent grief over the death of a child.

The question of the Macbeths’ status as parents is by no means unique to Kurzel’s Macbeth. In 1933, L. C. Knights, a critic and English lecturer, published an essay titled “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”, a sally against the vogue for using literary sources—in particular, Shakespeare—as springboards for extratextual speculation with a tenuous-at-best connection to the work in question. This has not prevented those adapting the play in subsequent generations from periodically casting the Macbeths as bereaved parents, for example in a 1999 production by Jude Kelly at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Kurzel and company also give Knights’s tongue-in-cheek query a definitive answer—“At least one child, and none living”—and this colors everything in the film as surely as the color-graded palette of cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, drear and dun save for bloody sunsets and purgative fire. Before battle against the rebellious army of Macdonwald, a mud-and-blood slip-and-slide shot in a combination of frenetic handheld melee and extreme slo-mo, Macbeth dotes over a barely pubescent soldier, soon to be killed in action, then charges across the field in what seems as much an attempted suicide as an act of valor. Once the day has been won, he addresses his “Two truths are told” aside to the corpse of the boy, who will live again as a dagger-clenching spectral vision who leads the newly appointed Thane of Cawdor to the tent of the defenseless King Duncan (David Thewlis, suitably rough and regal), and as the “Second Apparition” who gives the usurper false report of his invincibility. The image of a phantom child appears yet again after a guilt-wracked Lady Macbeth delivers her “Out, damned spot!” monologue, the bulk of it in an unbroken two-and-a-half minute close-up which attests to Cotillard’s extraordinary, mesmeric screen presence. This terminates with a reverse shot of the same disease-rotted boy being laid to rest in the film’s opening, a reveal that transforms "Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale . . . To bed, to bed" from the disassociated ramblings of a madwoman talking to herself to the doting words of a mother talking to her departed child.

Shakespeare’s text provides some shaky ground on which to build a theory that Lady Macbeth had at one point been a mother—“I have given suck, and know/How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me,” she tells her husband while egging him on to carry out her bloody scheme, though the “babe” in question might very well be taken as a metaphorical reference to that same scheme. It is made clear, regardless, that the Macbeths have no scion to gift whatever power they wrest for themselves: see Macbeth’s own reference to his “barren crown” and “fruitless scepter,” or the utterance of Macduff on learning from Malcolm that Macbeth has butchered his brood and that he cannot repay his enemy in kind—“He has no children!” (Sean Harris and Jack Reynor play the respective roles in the film, and the staging of this scene upon a wind-blasted moor is among the film’s most affecting moments, even if the blocking here, as throughout the film, reinforces an image of the Scotch as a race of close-talkers.) That “fruitless scepter” bit in particular has led some scholars—and, in a 1916 essay, Sigmund Freud—to read Macbeth as the story of a possibly impotent man who has substituted lust for power in place of a sex drive, though this is quite explicitly not the case in Kurzel’s film, in which Lady Macbeth helps her hesitant husband screw his courage to the sticking place by giving him a screw.

It isn’t the conceptual spin that ultimately undoes Kurzel’s Macbeth, but his ponderous approach, hefting each scene on top of the last as though moviemaking was an act of grunting, straining brute force, stacking up a big, bleak cairn. I have not seen the Australian director’s previous film The Snowtown Murders (2012), also shot by Arkapaw, and can only speculate on what will become of his next announced project, an adaptation of the Assassin’s Creed video game series, also starring Fassbender. Shuttling between Elizabethan and pixelized drama makes for a strange career trajectory, but the market is such that even Kenneth Branagh, once-upon-a-time the great hope for cinematic Shakespeare, has been set to work adapting the modern classics of Tom Clancy and Stan Lee, and the relative cultural prestige of material doesn’t make the filmmaker. Immortal playwright or PlayStation, anything deserves better than the collection of stiff “painterly” poses and doomy postures that Kurzel trots out, recalling fellow Aussie mediocrity John Hillcoat, just as the loping score by the director’s brother, Jed Kurzel, recollects the drear and draggy work of Hillcoat’s repeat collaborators Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Fassbender certainly has the timbre to make iambic pentameter sing, though spends very little time working in the range between shout and husky whisper, and a good deal of the Bard’s poetry disappears somewhere between the performer’s lips and their spittle-flecked beards. (Perhaps unexpectedly it is the Parisian-born Cotillard—we must presume her marriage to Macbeth came about through the Auld Alliance—who acquits herself best.)

The film’s unvariegated tone, one supposes, is meant to convey a seriousness of purpose and apocalyptic foreshadowing, but here reads as a limitation of visual imagination and emotional intuition. It may be impossible to coronate a single, definitive screen Macbeth, but some pretenders can be discounted at a glance.