Fatal Visions

110 years of Macbeth on film.

Macbeth through the years. 

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos courtesy The Weinstein Company, ullstein bild/Getty Images.

In Act 4 of Macbeth, the witches show the play’s tragic hero a vision: Eight kings march by in succession, the last bearing a mirror in which are reflected many more future monarchs—all of them the descendants, not of King and Queen Macbeth, but of Banquo, the former best friend Macbeth has just paid assassins to take out. In undertaking his cinematic adaptation of Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, the Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel must have felt a similarly eerie sensation of infinite regress. However successful or unsuccessful Kurzel’s version may be on its own terms, by making it he inserts himself into a performance history stretching back more than 400 years and forward into the indefinite future—as long, one would hope, as there are enough humans or artificially intelligent singularities left to put on a show. To believe one has something to contribute to that history calls for a healthy dose of chutzpah, but to actually carry it off, humility is also required. A good adaptation of Macbeth—and Kurzel’s is a very good one—must acknowledge the limits of any one interpreter’s authority over that great, ungovernable text, a work of art as compact and unassailable as a chunk of rock.

It’s been called the most cinematic of Shakespeare’s plays, on clear empirical grounds as well as more nebulous aesthetic ones. First of all, Macbeth is short—around 2,477 lines, the briefest by far of the tragedies, with a running time of just over two hours in most stage productions. (By contrast, Shakespeare’s longest play, the 4,000-plus-line Hamlet, clocks in at around four hours.) The Scottish play’s dramatic action is also unusually streamlined, with no romantic subplots or lesser court intrigues to detract from the central regicide-turned-ghost-story. With the exception of one long monologue by the witch-queen Hecate that’s generally accepted to be a non-Shakespearean addition, virtually every line in the play serves to further the central story: that of an ambitious Scottish thane who, egged on by his still more merciless wife, murders first the benevolent King Duncan and then, as the play goes on, every man, woman, and child he perceives as a threat to his ongoing claim to the crown.

Thanks to that concision, Macbeth lends itself to treatment as a straight-ahead action movie. There’s no Hamlet-like dilly-dallying over ontological riddles, no Othellian agonies over the symbolic significance of a missing handkerchief. From the opening lines, in which the three witches arrange their fateful meeting with Macbeth, every scene is subtended by a sense of imminent danger, with the possibility of violent death facing even the most blameless character. The body count starts high—before the audience has even laid eyes on him, the valiant warrior Macbeth is described as hacking his way across a battlefield to “unseam” a foe “from the nave to the chops”—and only gets higher. And the climactic battle—during which, true to the witches’ seemingly fantastical prophecy, the forest of Birnam Wood seems to uproot itself and march like a vegetal army on the castle of Dunsinane—offers an opportunity for the kind of grand-scale spectacle that requires magic or tricks onstage but is cinema’s stock in trade.

Kurzel’s interpretation, set in a credibly bleak medieval Scotland, understands and exploits the work’s action-movie potential. Rather than having an eyewitness recount the “unseaming” described above, Kurzel shows it in super-slow motion. But the battle that earns the thane his first promotion has none of the eroticized glamor of slo-mo-happy sword-and-sandal fantasies like 300. Instead, Kurzel gives us mud and blood and horrible deaths, including that of a teenage boy who seems to be a special favorite of Macbeth’s, perhaps a reminder of his younger self. That boy will reappear as a ghost throughout the film; Fassbender delivers the “Is this a dagger which I see before me?” soliloquy directly to him, giving the words a very different tenor than when they’re addressed to an invisible floating knife.

But it isn’t only the fierce, warlike elements of Macbeth that this adaptation gets right. The play’s emotional center is the relationship between Macbeth and his lady, a toxic compound of love, ambition, shared guilt and mutual rationalization. As her lord steadily loses his marbles, Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth continues to deal with the still-fresh trauma of the king’s murder by frantically dissembling her own anxiety. Only a few scenes after assuring the distraught Macbeth that “a little water clears us of this deed,” she’s admitting that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.” A couple of acts later, her husband will react to the news of her death with a blankness (“She should have died hereafter”) that is sometimes interpreted as indifference but has always seemed to me like the initial denial phase of grief. The famous speech that follows—“tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”—is addressed, in this version, directly to Lady Macbeth’s corpse, a dramatic choice that risks bathos but, by grace of Fassbender’s rigorously unhammy performance, just skirts it.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth may well be the most intimately connected couple in all of Shakespeare. They’re a pair of self-serving murderers damned to burn in hell, sure, but they see one another’s strengths and weaknesses with rare clarity; in their own sick way, they’re made for each other. Cotillard and Fassbender convey the Macbeths’ perverse complicity as well as their nihilistic, almost punk-rock embrace of their own cruel acts. “Returning were as tedious as go o’er,” sighs Macbeth, contemplating yet another expedient slaughter of innocents; in other words, the two of them are now in so deep they might as well wade the rest of the way across the bloody stream.

What can a filmed version of Macbeth do that a theatrically staged one can’t? What specifically cinematic possibilities does this text open up for any filmmaker courageous and foolish enough to take it on? In trying to assess Kurzel’s approach, I found myself first re-reading the play, then watching earlier adaptations to understand how other directors had approached it. I excluded Macbeths that were filmed records of theatrical productions, like Trevor Nunn’s highly regarded 1979 A Performance of Macbeth (starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench) or Rupert Goold’s 2010 film of Patrick Stewart’s Tony-nominated Broadway performance. Also left unconsidered were adaptations so loose they left behind Shakespeare’s language entirely (with the exception of Throne of Blood, a movie too great to leave out of any Macbeth-on-film discussion.) Before deciding whether or not this new version was successful, I wanted to form a conception of what a successful on-screen Macbeth might look like, and to understand why this particular play has proved so perennially alluring to ambitious directors.

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For nearly as long as there have been motion pictures, there have been adaptations of Macbeth. The one-minute-long Duel Scene from Macbeth was photographed in 1905 by cinema pioneer G.W. “Billy” Bitzer, who would go on to be D.W. Griffith’s longtime director of photography. It’s a simple vision of the tragic hero as arrogant, kilt-clad swashbuckler; a flimsy excuse for a swordfight, really, lent a dash of highbrow legitimacy by its association with the theatrical tradition. 

D.W. Griffith would himself oversee the production of a feature-length Macbeth in 1916, with a crew full of figures destined to become titans in the burgeoning industry: Erich von Stroheim, John Emerson, Victor Fleming. Like about 75 percent of all films made during the silent era, this adaptation is now considered lost, though some production stills survive. But the lore of its making says a lot about the state of theatrical adaptation in cinema’s early days. The lead was played by the marvelously named Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, an English stage actor known for playing Shakespearean roles with the mannered bombast common to Victorian productions. Unclear on the concept of silent film’s dependence on gesture and pantomime, Tree continued to hold forth with long speeches from the play. According to the film historian Kevin Brownlow, the crew sometimes took the film out of the camera and continued to crank as Tree discoursed, so as not to waste precious feet of celluloid.

In 1948, Orson Welles—having been fired from RKO studios for his tendency to ignore both budgets and schedules—managed to cadge a modest sum from the B-movie outfit Republic Pictures to shoot his own version of Macbeth. His vision for this new adaptation was to emphasize the play’s elements of gothic horror; he pitched it to Republic executives as “a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein.”

Many of the directorial choices Welles made were the result of the severe financial constraints he was working under. The film was shot in 23 days on sets normally used for Westerns, with only one day left for retakes at the end. Large portions of the dialogue were pre-recorded, with the actors lip-syncing their own lines on set. Welles delivered the movie on time and on budget, and though it was roundly drubbed by most critics, it eventually turned a small profit for the company (after Republic cut out 20 minutes and re-recorded some actors’ parts with a pared-down Scottish burr). But Macbeth was nowhere near successful enough to convince anyone to finance another Shakespeare movie, let alone with Welles. He would put the bard on screen one more time, in the 1965 masterpiece Chimes at Midnight, which combined scenes from five different plays into a character portrait of Falstaff, embodied by Welles in perhaps his greatest acting performance.

Decades later the starkly shadowed lighting and choppy editing of his Macbeth read not as cost-cutting maneuvers but as artistic statements. Welles’ Macbeth is sometimes compared by enthusiasts to the work of Russian modernists like Sergei Eisenstein; it’s rough-hewn and expressionistic, full of jarring juxtapositions and heavily symbolic imagery. Macbeth is undoubtedly a lesser entry in the Welles catalog, but it’s a peculiarly memorable film, and one of the first examples of a filmed Shakespeare adaptation bearing a distinct authorial stamp. (Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, released that same year to far greater acclaim and box-office success, is now remembered mostly as a record of the performance of its director and star, whose then-lauded Shakespearean declamation now feels fussy and dated, closer to Herbert Beerbohm Tree than to a satisfying contemporary performance.)

How does each of these Macbeths approach the play’s most famous showcase scene, the Act 3 banquet? The choice of how to film the moment when Banquo’s still-bloody ghost appears to Macbeth, causing him to break down in front of his guests as his wife scrambles to cover for his suddenly bizarre behavior, serves as a test case for the larger dilemmas the play—filled as it is with visions and fantasies,—poses to film directors: How much of what the characters see will we see? How will the camera communicate at once the vision’s intense reality to the person experiencing it and its invisibility to others on screen?

In Welles’ Macbeth, the banquet scene has a nightmarishly intimate quality. There’s little emphasis on the social awkwardness created by the king’s inexplicable outburst—a key element of the scene in most stage productions, where the other actors, standing there in plain sight, need something to do. Because of Welles’ love for close-ups (and the production’s budget limitations), what we see is mainly Macbeth’s face as he stares in horror at the bloody vision. As the camera pans along his trembling finger, pointing at the place where the silent ghost stands, the rest of the guests vanish. For a moment, the only people present are Macbeth and Banquo, the no-longer-living proof of his foul deed.  

Akira Kurosawa sets the most beautiful of all movie Macbeths, 1957’s Throne of Blood, in feudal Japan, reimagining the battling thanes as samurai warriors and the witches as forest spirits. Throne of Blood is at once faithfully Shakespearean and deeply Japanese, touching on every one of the play’s key themes while incorporating performance elements from Noh drama. Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s gruff-voiced muse, brings a fierce athleticism to the role of Macbeth (here named Lord Washizu.) His death scene—instead of being killed in a swordfight and then beheaded, the usurper is impaled through the neck with an arrow—is at once a prodigious feat of acting, of editing, and of archery. Kurosawa insisted Mifune be shot at with real arrows aimed by expert marksmen, in part so that his expression of terror wouldn’t be feigned.

Kurosawa’s handling of the banquet scene in Throne of Blood is an example of the power of cinematic restraint. Rather than hasten to pile on the horrific visions, the director emphasizes the empty place set for the king’s absent friend. (In keeping with the film’s minimalism, the royal feast here appears to consist of nothing but a bowl of rice.) After several cuts from Washizu’s increasingly anxious face to the unoccupied seat, the camera pulls back to show Banquo (here named Miki) sitting there quietly, unadorned by the “gory locks” Shakespeare describes. The disequilibrium between what Washizu sees and the intensity of his reaction is the whole point. 

Roman Polanski’s 1971 Macbeth was the first new project the director undertook after his pregnant wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Charles Manson cult in 1969. The screenplay, co-written with the English theater critic Kenneth Tynan, eliminates many famous passages while retaining nearly every important dramatic beat. Outside of a few inexplicable lapses in taste—like a misbegotten scene in which Macbeth’s imaginary floating dagger appears to the audience as well, via special effects that suggest a sparkling kitchen implement for sale on QVC—Polanski’s Macbeth is a triumph. Though ostensibly a period piece, this graphically violent adaptation can’t help but evoke not just the Manson murders but the socially chaotic atmosphere of the late ’60s, an impression that’s underlined by Polanski’s choice of two very young, good-looking actors—Jon Finch and Francesca Annis—to play the doomed thane and his lady.

The banquet scene in Polanski’s Macbeth is a good illustration of the film’s generally maximalist approach. Over the course of the dinner, Finch’s Macbeth sees not one ghost but several; the first time he appears, Banquo is ashen and corpselike. A few shots later, he spouts blood from a deep gash in his forehead; moments after that, he rises from his seat and lumbers toward a cowering Macbeth with his hands outstretched, his body already in a state of decay. This zombie-movie approach isn’t at all out of keeping with the tenor of Shakespeare’s play, which is, after all, about dead people who refuse to stay dead. 

The banquet scene in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth splits the difference between Polanski’s full-on horror treatment and Kurosawa’s sparse minimalism. When Fassbender’s Macbeth—who, like Welles’, has clearly downed a few too many goblets of mead before the feast begins—lays eyes on Banquo (Paddy Considine), all the other guests—and at first, the audience—see only an unnamed man standing there, a living guest at the feast. But in a few insert shots, Kurzel shows us how Macbeth has replaced this man’s body with that body of his murdered friend—who, in this vision, isn’t obviously dead, only blackened with the same soot that covered both Macbeth and Banquo in those early battlefield scenes. Banquo gazes at his betrayer not with zombielike menace but with quiet reproach, belying Macbeth’s subsequent claim that “thou hast no speculation in those eyes/ Which thou dost glare with.” 

The banquet scene is only one obvious place in Macbeth where a film director has a chance to make his or her individual interpretive stamp. (That “her” leaves open the question: When will we get to see one of Shakespeare’s richest female characters in a film adaptation directed by a woman?) There is also endless cinematic potential in, for example, the witch-induced hallucination of that procession of eight kings (which Polanski renders, spectacularly if showily, as a Rosemary’s Baby–style drug trip); the “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech (delivered by Welles in voiceover only, over a minute-long shot of drifting clouds); or the emotionally shattering late scene in which Ross informs Macduff that his entire family, small children and all, has been slaughtered by Macbeth’s henchmen. (Kurzel plays this scene fairly straight stylistically, but in a telling shift of emphasis, has Sean Harris’ Macduff seem to be referring to the absent Macbeth, rather than his insensitive companion Malcolm, when he all but bellows the enigmatic line: “He has no children.”)

I’ll leave it to the viewer to discover what other possibilities Kurzel finds in this infinitely malleable text, and to form an opinion of his interpretation. Some may find the director’s penchant for slow-motion battle scenes tiresome and crave the intimacy of a more pared-down rendering of the play. But Kurzel’s twist on the moment when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane is certainly clever, even if I was sort of looking forward to the classic image of an army of trees marching, impossibly, over the horizon. The important thing is to go see the Scottish movie—this version, certainly, but also older adaptations and those still to come. There’s a reason—brevity and directness aside—why Macbeth has attracted moviemakers ever since there were cameras to crank. Like the thane’s “fatal vision,” film has the power to give palpable form to otherwise ineffable aspects of human experience, making the moral corruption of the play’s tragic lead couple as “sensible to feeling as to sight.”