Rather than opening Macbeth with the classic battle featured in Act One of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Australian director Justin Kurzel presents a motif that appears throughout the film: childhood, and the innocence (or lack of) that comes with it.
The dead baby, or ‘babe’, placed centre frame in the opening shot isn’t so much a standalone metaphor within itself, but a reflection on what is to come for Macbeth (Michael Fassbender), and what the eponymous tragic hero (and, eventually, even villain) desires. Its death opens up two central themes that are continued through the film; the destruction of innocence and the introduction to faded glory, which, when combined, makes the end battle all the more significant, as the very specific red-coloured world that manifests the landscape as well as the characters is evil come to life; it becomes something tangible and real rather than an idea presented through imagery like the crown made out of bones, or the robes Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) and Macbeth inhabit once crowned.
Macbeth’s cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who worked on Kurzel’s debut feature film Snowtown, reserves his lavish, dynamic widescreen shots for the scenes out in the Scottish (battle) fields, emphasising the sense of claustrophobia and insanity when in the impressive castle, while, out in nature, everyone is transported back to their English GCSE as Arkapaw and Kurzel remind audiences of the deep, deep significance of nature and the correspondence this has with being king and the foreshadowing of it all. These details are important, however, as they represent what other filmmakers haven’t really tried to do before when translating Macbeth to screen. Instead of adapting the play into a nihilistic story a la Roman Polanski, Kurzel takes an Orson Welles style of approach to the adaptation, in that he is not trying to recreate the stage play for the screen, but is rather reinventing the story through the film with the same dialogue.
Take, for example, the constant fog that surrounds the landscape, reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957). Both adaptations use fog to impose a sense of eeriness, never letting audiences settle. However, Macbeth’s director also uses the fog to create a split between the sky and the land; Macbeth and the world; character and spectator. The fog goes between Fassbender and the camera, creating a loss of connection between his character and the audience, leaving us anticipated for his inevitable disintegration as king. It is only when the three witches appear in the middle of the opening battle does the fog clear – Macbeth’s only clarity comes when it is unclear to all others, Kurzel seems to suggest.
The film’s direction by Kurzel proves as close of a faithful adaptation Macbeth has gotten in terms of cinema, with Marion Cotillard’s performance of Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth and Sean Harris’ Macduff exemplifying the importance of characters and how these characters are performed. From the opening of the film, Kurzel presents characters that make direct eye contact with the camera, and, by the second Act, Cotillard’s lack of direct address to the audience is notable. It’s only when she commits suicide, when she realises “what’s done cannot be undone”, does she make eye contact – she realises what she is and what she has become but cannot face the guilt, so instead she faces herself, with the dream-like fog landscape being an effective choice for Lady Macbeth’s death as we finally see the turmoil she has both gone through and caused.
The film concludes reinstating the idea that evil is a force in the world that is just as innate as innocence, love and glory. The woods on fire are reminiscent of hell, and, right now, that is probably what Macbeth’s mind looks like. As the battle between good and good-turned-evil concludes, the landscape changes from a blazing fire to a sea of blood, Jed Kurzel’s music silences, and Macbeth is dead. All that’s left is Macbeth and his sword; his faded glory, which lives on as a child, takes the glory and runs into the sea of blood.
While some of the director’s choices didn’t work, – for example Fassbender’s quiet “out, out brief candle!” scene – the denouement suggests that, if, like me, you didn’t really understand all of the dialogue (because, you know, not everyone has a degree in Shakespeare), it’s ok, because this film is supposed to be experienced rather than heard.