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Shakespeare on the screen: The unending sorrow and eternal power of ‘Macbeth’

In a new series about film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays, we kick off with different interpretations of one of the Bard’s best-known works.

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (2016) is a gallery of breathtaking colours and camerawork distilled by Alan Arkapaw. Swathed in the blood red of slow-motion battles “lost and won” and lashed with golden tongues of a burning forest, the film also allows wintry white clouds to slink over the highlands and spread a thin blue mist across the bracken. This is the mist that smuggles the witches on and off the fringe of the story. This is the colour of Macbeth’s young son who is laid to rest in the opening scene.

Most interpretations of Macbeth map the journey of “peerless kinsman” to “dead butcher” with Lady Macbeth either as a fourth witch or a power-crazed catalyst fuelling her husband’s “deep and dark desires”. Orson Welles’s Gothic noir style Macbeth (1948) shows us Macbeth’s inherent evil in a hideous, semi-formed clay miniature that is pulled out of the witches bubbling cauldron. Roman Polanski’s bleached and bloody version (1971) has Jon Finch playing a young king whom impudent “juggling fiends” reduce to a scared kid.

In Kurzel’s re-creation of the Bard’s dark and daunting Scottish play, the Macbeths (played by an arresting Michael Fassbender and a bewitching Marianne Cotillard whose eye shadow is the colour of the mist) are laden with a subterranean sorrow. Macbeth is a general whose personal loss has corroded all perspective, and Lady Macbeth is a grieving mother who had “given suck” and knew how tender it was “to love the babe that milks me”.

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A clip from Justin Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’.

Bereavement at the loss of a child is not new to interpretations of Macbeth. While preparing for her role as Lady Macbeth in Greg Doran’s stage production of 1999, Harriet Walter consulted a bereavement counsellor and learnt that in some cases, the death of a child “bonds the couple more strongly than ever; in others, the marriage cracks under a mixture of unspoken blame, guilt and grief not shared in a desire to protect the partner from a double burden”. (Actors on Shakespeare; Faber and Faber).

However, whether on screen or stage, the child of the Macbeths is by convention only obliquely hinted at. The children we see are either victims of Macbeth’s pre-emptive carnage (Macduff’s brood, in a grisly scene in the Polaski film) or youthful survivors (Banquo’s son, Fleance, and Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain).

Kurzel’s film uses children as a heart-tugging centripetal force. Before Macbeth’s vacant stares, battle-injured fathers are greeted by joyful sons; the presence of a children’s choir echoes Lady Macbeth’s own childlessness; the “air drawn dagger” about which Macbeth hallucinates is held by a young boy who was killed in action. In one of her final scenes, Lady Macbeth sits in a shaft of clear light, almost pleading a boy child for mercy. Alarmingly enough, one of the witches is a young girl who meets Fleance in the woods before he heads towards Malcolm’s castle.

“I think Macbeth has always been a study of ambition and power, and I thought there would be something really interesting in seeing how that could arise from trauma and grief, a sense of loss – of a child…Macbeth goes about destroying families and the big thing is that he doesn’t have one,” Kurzel said in an interview.

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The banquet sequence from Justin Kurzel’s ‘Macbeth’.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is Kurzel’s other big pitch for the character of Macbeth. Instead of a worthy thane anointed by evil witches, we discover the burnt-out shell of a man who frets in a twilight zone where “nothing is, but what is not”. When he plunges his dagger repeatedly into the struggling Duncan, there is a deranged look about him and later with the sparkle of tears in his eyes and a crooked smile tugging at his lips, (one of Fassbender’s tremendous moments) Macbeth divulges, “O, full of scorpions is my mind, dear wife!” More mayhem follows.

Shakespearean speeches and soliloquies are usually rich and evocative in images, sometimes more than a mouthful. To have the verbal compromised by the visual is a common enough cinematic practice. Polanski’s text cuts, accompanied by close-ups, compel the audience to connect with what the characters think as well as what they do. Kurzel eschews such nuance and subtlety for unpredictable action. Scattered lines of Shakespeare function as an aphrodisiac for the lead players.

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Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood’.

Shedding all Shakespearean trappings, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) still works, arguably, as the finest and most haunting Macbeth till date. The spectral look and feel of the film is created by the ingenious use of tropes from 14th century Japanese Noh theatre. This style embodies emotion in the elements, in this case, the wild wind and the almost blinding fog that rolls across the labyrinthine forest. Mask-like faces suggest character types rather than individuals, and scenes are composed in a rhythm of alternating stillness and frenetic action, mirroring the movement of the actors. A mosaic of chiaroscuro fills the film with a terrible foreboding.

But perhaps the most operative device in creating ambience is the death-defying silence. Often shattered by galloping hooves and broken by raucous crows, this silence can capture even the sinister swish of a silk kimono.

Kurosawa’s masterstroke is, of course, delivered when Taketoki Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) is pierced by a shuddering hail of arrows, but more provoking is the unsettling silence before we hear the haunting chant that we heard at the opening of the film. The story of a man “murdered by ambition” is a tale for all time.

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