I finally got the chance to see the 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth, directed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Based on the after-show rumblings, the people in the theater seemed pretty split between those loving the production for its visual sumptuousness and having such a hunky actor speak in verse, and those begrudging Kurzel for privileging style at the cost of the comic relief scenes, which were all cut.
I get it: I was waiting to see what they’d do with the Porter scene, too. I love when Macduff Jr. cheekily challenges his mum on the morality of whether every single liar should be hanged by every single honest man. These parts were missed, but what remains is a production streamlined to reflect Macbeth’s own subjective: what does he see? how does he feel? What’s left is his descent into madness.
In the process of this descent, Macbeth kills all of his friends / competitors, defending his crown while the rest of Scotland turns on him. He makes one final visit to the “weird sisters,” who foretell whether he will win the war or be vanquished once and for all. They respond with the following riddle-like stipulations:
1: “None of woman born shall harm Macbeth.”
2: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill shall come against him.”
Ultimately, Macbeth hears only what he wants to hear. To the Scottish king, their responses are not cryptic but clear: your cause is just, you will survive this war. To someone terrified of being defeated without an heir of his own, Macbeth hears that it is impossible to vanquish him, just as it seems impossible for a person to be born from anyone but a woman, or for a forest to exist anywhere but where it is rooted.
To me, the most important quality of any adaptation is whether it makes me think about the play in a new way. Kurzel’s Macbeth does this with the final battle scene. In most productions that I have seen, the allied powers transport Birnam Wood to Dunsinane by camouflaging themselves in the leaves and branches of Birnam Wood, effectively going unseen by Macbeth until it is too late. This convention is exceptionally clever: it requires surprisingly little effort in order to stage something that, to Macbeth, seems so impossible. Because I’ve seen the scene staged in this fashion so many times, I wasn’t expecting this production to go in another direction. But boy, did they! Instead of bringing the forest to Dunsinane through camouflage, Malcolm’s army sets Birnam Wood ablaze. That’s right: the final battle is staged on the smoky, ashy, periphery of a giant forest fire!
Coming disturbingly full-circle from the misty heath on which the first battle was set, what we get is a stark contrast between natural order and man’s interference:
- Duncan, the natural king, vs. Macbeth, the regicidal usurper
- Mist vs. ash
- Nature’s inherent fearsomeness vs. destruction at the hands of men
Macbeth disturbs the natural order by killing the natural king. Kurzel epitomizes the subsequent challenges facing the usurper by showing not only man, but nature rising against Macbeth to restore Malcolm to his rightful seat.
So that leaves us with the question: is it worthwhile to brave the January cold in order to see this film? My answer: most definitely. See Kurzel bring the unexpected to Dunsinane! And if that’s not steamy enough for you, know that you’ll also be getting some of this:
Not bad, Fassbender. Not bad.