2006 version starring Sam Worthington couldn't quite cut the mustard, and the 2010 PBS production starring Patrick Stewart, while good, didn't quite give me what I wanted either.)
I got even more excited when I saw the trailer. Were we actually going to get the battle scene that the bleeding Captain describes in the first act? It sure looked like it. Perhaps we'd even see poor MacDonwald get "unseamed from the nave to the chops". Other moments got me excited, like the way Fassbender delivers the line about how his mind is "full of scorpions". I've never quite seen it done that way before. Usually he's just lamenting his guilty conscience, but this version carried a "Man, I've really gone and done it THIS time!" vibe.
The big disappointment? It didn't play in any theaters near me. My local theater that would have normally played this sort of a thing closed down a few years ago, and the closest one that was playing it was all the way in San Francisco. (It's about an hour away from me. Not ridiculously far, but a bit inconvenient.) There may or may not have been other means of viewing the film that may or may not have been entirely legal, but those wound up not working out for various quality and/or virus-related issues.
When I saw that it was coming out on Blu-Ray, I decided to just take a chance and buy the damn thing. (I can provide a receipt!) I figure even if I didn't like it, I'd be voting with my wallet to encourage the film industry to keep making Shakespeare adaptations. I started watching it late last night and finished it this afternoon. In short - I absolutely loved it. I don't want to make a hasty declaration that it's my favorite film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but I wouldn't be surprised if I list it among my favorites a decade or two from now.
Before I go any further, I should probably point out that there are some SPOILERS. How the heck do you spoil a four hundred year old play? (He dies at the end!) Obviously, I can't spoil the basic story, but the reason why one sees a new version of any of Shakespeare's plays, be it on the stage or on film, is to see how a new director and actors will interpret something that's been done so many times before. Director Justin Kurzel takes a lot of liberties with the text, but I'd be disappointed if he didn't as there are plenty of versions that remain word-for-word the same. (Ever see the 1983 version that PBS did? Holy crap in a bucket but it's more boring than watching an inflatable swimming pool deflate.) Of course, there's always a certain irony in purists complaining about people putting their own spin on Shakespeare's material considering that's what he did with almost every play he wrote. Macbeth may be based in history, but it's even less historical than Mel Gibson's Braveheart. So, I'm going to give away some of the twists and interpretations, and if you want to be surprised, you should stop reading at this point.
I should probably also note that I'm somebody who knows this play backward and forward, and my review is really for people who are already familiar with the play. If you don't know it at all, you'll probably just wind up being confused.
Anyway, here's what I thought about various aspects of it, in no particular order:
The cinematography - Sweet Jeebus, but this is a gorgeous looking film. Watch it on your biggest TV, and be sure to watch it on Blu-Ray. This made me regret not seeing it on the big screen even more, but they really took the time to do what you can only do on film and can't do on the stage. If you're going to translate it to a different medium, then play to that medium's strengths.
Justin Kurzel's vision - I would hope that even people who do not like this version could admit that Kurzel definitely had a vision here and he achieved what he set out to do. It really streamlined what is already a pretty rapidly paced story (for Shakespeare's standards). The focus was sharply on Macbeth and what was going on in his mind, and various political and cultural subtexts are pushed aside.
Marion Cottillard's Lady Macbeth - I have a feeling that this performance will reward repeated viewings. I honestly wasn't thrilled about this piece of casting - not that I think she's a bad actor. Maybe it's just because I was more excited about Fassbender. That said, she and Kurzel created an arc for the character that hadn't ever occurred to me before. Oftentimes Lady Macbeth is portrayed as being totally wicked and just gets in over her head. However, it should be noted that she gets less and less involved with Macbeth's evil plans as the play goes on. I always attributed that to the fact that he shuts her out because of how manipulative and cold she was at the start. With this version, it's not so much that she gets pushed away as she wants less and less to do with him. This ultimately makes everything make even more sense when she completely loses her mind at the end, as she realizes that her initial push merely opened up Pandora's box.
Oh, yeah, what about Fassbender, anyway? - Overall, I think that he did a great job. I'll admit that there were a few parts where it felt like he was reciting lines moreso than performing the part of the character, but the good bits far outweigh the bad, and the REALLY good bits (like the scene with Banquo's ghost) made up for it even more. I recommend watching the bonus features of the disc, as the actor explains that he was playing the part of a man who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which makes A LOT of sense when you consider how he was out there fighting on the front lines in a time where the battles were up-close and personal and the blood of your enemy would splatter all over you.
The music - Jed Kurzel's score is hard to ignore, and it really adds to the overall mood of the film. I am reluctant to compare this all to a music video, but there are certainly some comparisons that can be made. You can get a pretty good sense of it if you watch the trailer.
The changes - I'm not going to list off every change/interpretation of this film, but let me just make the general statement that a lot of it involves taking bits that were soliloquies directed to the audience and having the characters say them directly to another character. For instance, when Lady Macbeth talks of her husband being "too full of the milk of human kindness" she says it directly TO HIM. And you know what? It works. It even works better than having it just be her thoughts.
Another interesting bit is when Macbeth speaks to Banquo's murderer just before the dinner/Banquo's ghost scene. In the text, it's all an aside so only those two and the audience can hear. In this one, Macbeth says it loud enough for people to hear, as he's already losing touch with reality.
A more significant change involves the circumstances of Malcolm fleeing to England. (Donalbain is completely cut out of this version.) In the play, he leaves after everybody finds out that his dad has been killed. Honestly, I've always found that to be an all-too convenient plot point. With this version, Macbeth gives the line about how his dad is dead right in front of Duncan's murdered body, as if to say, "Yeah, I'm the one who did this. What the hell are you going to do about it? I'll kill you, too."
While there are a lot of other changes, I never felt like any of them were there just for the sake of doing things differently. Each one either raised the stakes or simply provided me with a new way to think about a play that I've read so many times. If you're a purist, you'll no doubt be upset, but I have a hard time empathizing with that point of view in the first place, as I've already pointed out.
So, will I show this one to my class now? Honestly? No. As much as I loved it, I'm afraid that it will just cause too much confusion. I'm already spending a lot of time emphasizing the difference between what Shakespeare wrote and what they see in the Polanski version as it is, and even with that, I still have students write about events in their essays that were merely an interpretation of the director and not what Shakespeare wrote. (They often write about how Lady Macbeth threw herself off a balcony, when the text simply says that she died and it's later revealed that she most likely killed herself.)
With this version, I will have to pause it every ten minutes or so and point out stuff like, "So, in the text, he says this only to the audience." It would get pretty annoying pretty quickly. So, while I won't be showing this, I will definitely recommend it to any of my students who like the play enough to want to explore it further. Perhaps an extra credit review assignment?