In Which We Simply Cannot Sit Through Another Macbeth

The Sad Boy


dir. Justin Kurzel
119 minutes

I have never liked Macbeth. It is easily the most patronizing of Shakespeare’s plays and watching Michael Fassbender holding Marion Cotillard in his arms, gripping her like a wriggling golden retriever does little to alter my conviction.

I remember when I was a kid I explained to my fifth grade teacher that Macbeth was whipped. She highlighted this term and made me understand why it was so offensive, since it was a word that intimated a man controlling a woman was some kind of beastly slavery. She was controlling me in much the same fashion, so I substituted a synonym, or as I prefer to call it, a cinnamon. I will never forget her armpits; she never shaved them and it was very brave. Director Justin Kurzel attempts to dispense with the sexist undertones of his source material, but that is impossible and Macbeth becomes only duller for his impotent attempt.

Weirdly, Marion Cotillard uglies herself up quite a bit for Lady Macbeth. She barely ever leaves the dark rooms where she encourages her husband’s misdeeds. Once she meets up with Duncan and she looks like a depressed housewife; not the wife of the Thane of Cawdor. Lady Macbeth, by all rights, should be glorious. But she is not, a fault blamed on the play’s writer and the director of this year’s Macbeth, who seems to think he is making some kind of Scottish horror movie.

Murder is substantially worse than Kurzel makes it out to be. As he slays Duncan, Fassbender has this very exacting look, like he is popping an extremely painful pimple. He looks good after the murder; he even seems to enjoy it on some level. Afterwards and before, the Scottish highlands resemble lesions on the face of the earth.

Even when Macbeth starts in on killing kids, we never see it, just the fire afterwards burning their corpses and the intonation of sad music. Was the point here to exclude the most interesting, painful parts of the story so that Fassbender could tawk more?

Even the theatrical Macbeth can only be saved by shifting the focus to the play’s heroes. Malcolm (Jack Reynor) is a simpering man-child who weeps when Fassbender throatily informs him of his father’s passing. Paddy Considine is utterly wasted in the shit role of Banquo, and he fades into the background as Fassbender overwhelms him by talking louder and more often.

Sean Harris is a subtle and possessed actor who invests the key role of Macduff with a shrill vulnerability, but Kurzel gives Macbeth’s mirror image little in the way of meaningful screen time. Even his grief is boilerplate: he retches.

The key scene in Macbeth is when the titular character goes mad at this big dinner in front of everyone. This is usually played partly for laughs and then it turns more serious. Since Kurzel’s Macbeth is not the slightest bit humorous for any reason — it is maybe the most self-serious rendition of the tale ever perpetrated — we feel neither embarrassed nor amused.

Kurzel cuts as much of Macbeth‘s dialogue as he dares, the only means of turning the action into a compelling drama instead of an extended meditation on death. Avoiding the latter is difficult, because Macbeth has Fassbender intone some of his longer speeches into voiceover. All the mystery is lost in Macbeth by the end of the second act; we know everything there is to know, so the only means of keeping the audience’s attention is to (1) show Fassbender shirtless and (2) wait for Marion Cotillard to do the same in vain. Everyone is ghosts at this point.

As the play spirals toward the inevitable, just before Lady Macbeth is about to take her own life for reasons unknown, Marion is actually looking a lot better. A lot of directors have trouble making sense of Cotillard’s beauty, and her raw, throaty sexuality before death is the best part of Kurzel’s Macbeth. It is the only time we are listening because we care, not because the diegesis is begging for any attention at all.

I don’t know if Shakespeare is holding up all that much lately. His political commentary seems super dated; even twenty years ago it seemed significantly more relevant. A few of his comedies are funny, but most of them are weird jokes with sexual entendres that barely made sense even at the time. Besides Hamlet, you may want to be spared the trouble when this time could be repurposed towards getting into crossfit.

Dick Cheney is the senior contributor to This Recording.

“Stanley Park” – Aoife O’Donovan (mp3)

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