AFI FEST: ‘Macbeth’ is a moody adaptation

The Scottish play has a long tradition of superstition. While traditionally one isn’t supposed to mention it within a theater where the play might be staged, apparently that also holds true for movie theaters. This cinematic version of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” is written by Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso, directed by Justin Kurzel and stars Michael Fassbender in the title role. Fassbender’s “Macbeth” follows a sold-out 2013 stage performance  by Kenneth Branagh as the doomed Scottish king that was also broadcast internationally.

Like Kenneth Branagh’s recent National Theatre Life adaptation, Lady Macbeth is given proper motivation. She lost a child. In the days where women were political tools, love took second place to political concerns. Children were vital to a woman’s role and perhaps a mother-child love is the only real love there was.

Yet while Branagh’s theatrical presentation was in a deconsecrated church, intimate even in its muddy battle sequences and made more so with the live performance tendency for close ups, this movie explores the vast distance between castles at a time when horses were the fastest form of transportation. The mists and rain of Scotland give a brooding background where one can easily imagine visions of ghosts, but remember in Shakespeare’s day, ghosts and witches were real.

In Fassbender’s “Macbeth,” children are a recurring motif in this version of Shakespeare. We see a dead child being mourned by Lady Macbeth. The weird sisters are not three (Kayla Fallon, Lynn Kennedy and Seylan Baxter), but at times have children with them (Amber Rissmann as child witch). On the battlefields, we see children watch and we see children die.

The plot is about how Macbeth comes king and how he is dethroned. As played by Michael Fassbender, Macbeth doesn’t have the angry passion of Branagh’s. He’s more thoughtful, pensive opportunist. He grieves for his lost child. He has gone to war, supporting King Duncan (David Thewlis). He leads an army into a muddy cruel war and sees many boy soldiers die. This disturbs him.

The battle is being watched the the witches with a girl and an infant who then hail Macbeth and his companion Banquo (Paddy Considine). The women predict that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and king but that Banquo will be the father of kings. Before the men can learn more, the women disappear into the white mists.

In another part of Scotland, Duncan hears news of Macbeth’s victory and orders the execution of the Thane of Cawdor. He declares that Macbeth will be granted that title. News reaches Macbeth and he is astounded. He sends news to his wife and informs her of the predictions of the witches. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) is already in a dark place and at a church she asks not for God’s help, but for other more sinister forces to aid her path. When they greet Duncan as their guest, it is not in a castle, but in tents.  These lords are just barely above the rabble.

Macbeth’s ambition is wetted, but Duncan announces that Malcolm will be his heir. Macbeth and his wife confer and the decision is made. What must be, must be and anything that can set them on that path must be or can be justified.  They will murder Duncan and place the blame on others. When Macbeth takes the knife , it is from the image of one of the dead boy soldiers (Scot Greenan). Is it his imagination or have the dark forces come to aid the two?

The ghosts come back to haunt Macbeth:  Banquo whom Macbeth ordered assassinated appears at a banquet. When the witches predict that Macbeth will remain kind until the Birnam Wood come to the king’s castle Dunsinane and that he cannot be killed by a man born of woman, slain soldiers appear and warn him to beware of Macduff (Sean Harris).

In a divergence from the original, it is the burning of Birnam Wood and the drifting ashes that brings the woods to Dunsinane Castle. While some Macbeth adaptations have Macbeth vanquished by skill, here he is defeated by his own fears. Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography gives this adaptation a moody atmosphere. You can almost feel the cold of the mists and mud and isolation in the countryside and castles of Scotland.

“Macbeth” made its world premiere at Cannes and played at AFI FEST. The official release date for the U.S. is December 4, 2015.

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