What can I say? It’s one of Shakespeare’s goriest, most intense, most riveting pieces of work. It’s got everything: action, ambition, weird sisters, murder, more ambition, more murder, politics, more murder, gender-bending, vengeance, imperialism, and even a few twists of the supernatural. It’s got such a reputation that in some theatre circles, its mere name is an omen, prompting people to refer to it obliquely as “the Scottish play.”
And yet, apart from a few scattered action scenes, the bulk of the film doesn’t seem to move much. Almost every scene is shot in gloomy greys and browns, perhaps in a nod to the play’s dark themes. Visually, however, this makes it a little hard to follow at times. Most of the dialog is spoken in whispers of varying intensity; sometimes the emotion is discernible, sometimes not so much. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines have been cut in what sometimes seems like a belated recognition that things are draaaaaaagging and need to be moved along.
Really, folks, it’s Shakespeare. You shouldn’t be fighting to stay awake. I watched three or four people stand up and walk out of the theatre.
Early in the play, Macbeth is wrestling with the prophesy from the three witches and the implicit green light for killing the kindly King Duncan; when I studied it in high-school English class, it was about him struggling with his conscience while Lady Macbeth, already in thrall to the Dark Side, urges him to grow a pair. The discussion between Fassbender’s Macbeth and Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth, however, carries about as much emotional weight as a couple arguing over what colour to paint the living room.
The flatness continues through what should be some of the most emotionally loaded scenes in the script, among them the appearance of Banquo’s ghost at the feast and Lady Macbeth’s descent into madness in the “Out, damned spot” sleepwalk. Both scenes provide the stars with a fat juicy opportunity to carry the film, but in both — well, whatever charge they’re supposed to bring, it seems the battery’s drained. Fassbender never jolts us with the horror, guilt, and paranoia Macbeth’s supposed to feel when he sees Banquo’s blood-spattered shade, and for all the pain and OCD Cotillard’s supposed to be portraying during her somnambulistic hand-washing, she might as well be advertising a dishwashing liquid.
True, you don’t have to chew the scenery, but is a little emotional content too much to ask for?
The last ten minutes, in fairness, are a vivid contrast to the muted torpor of the preceding scenes, if not enough to redeem the film. Especially when the filmmakers ditch the dark greys and browns in favour of a visually riveting advance on Dunsinane by the warriors in Birnam Wood. And the final confrontation between Fassbender and Sean Harris’s vengeful Macduff could have been an outtake from Braveheart.
Bottom line: 6/10. If you’ve seen other versions, it might be worth a go, but if not, start with something else.