The Grief of Macbeth

Ian Douglas , Wednesday 23 Dec 2015

Director Justin Kurzel has done more in his adaptation of Macbeth than put to film a legendary tale; he has given Shakespeare’s great tragedy new meaning, one the Bard may have preferred had circumstance allowed

(Photo: Still from Macbeth, 2015)

Close to death, one no longer sees it,
and you gaze steadily ahead,
perhaps with an animal’s gaze.

— Rainer Maria Rilke

Sometimes there is occasion to say that a film is better than the book. But it would appear exaggeration to say that anything put on film could improve on Shakespeare. Yet this is exactly what Australian director Justin Kurzel has done with Macbeth (2015). To say it outright: his film is better than the play.

Such a statement, which some may find extravagant, demands much in the way of substantiation. Yet Kurzel makes it easy, once we dispense with the context in which the original text was written, and ask more questions of it than often are asked. Kurzel’s mastery is displayed not only in editing — jettisoning sections and scenes designed to entertain an early modern audience, or that draw out and underline, with a repetition that borders on insult, the distinction between good and evil, virtue and corruption. Kurzel and his screenwriters — which all deserve due thanks and recognition — add layers of complexity and nuance until now unseen in representations of this popular, iconic tale, worthy past efforts notwithstanding. The end result is not simply artistic. It is beyond time and eternal.

Kurzel’s mark is set from the opening frame. A child is dead, the child of Macbeth — one only alluded to but the circumstances never clarified in Shakespeare’s original. This same child will reappear at a critical juncture later, and indeed may — as elaborated below — be the very reason and spur of the true tragedy of Macbeth. Kurzel’s second mark is established within the same scene: the closeness of the film. Instead of deploying a cast of many hundreds, placing Macbeth from the beginning in a stately castle, as did Shakespeare, in Kurzel’s adaptation everything is more intimate. Macbeth’s domain is but a settlement in a small valley with a handful of families, the centrepiece structure of which being a small wooden chapel. This smallness pertains to the film as a whole. Indeed, the entire nation of Scotland appears, at times, in Kurzel’s treatment as reduced to a few score. At once proximate, the effect is also one that accentuates inconsequence, when set against the vastness and silent witness of the land, which we see variously again and again. The drama, though deep, plays out on a surface. Life — at least human life — is fleeting and temporary.

This choice in scale drives interpretive departures in the film. Birnam wood, for example, is not carried to conceal the extent of the invading English army but burned, the embers in the air approaching Dunsinane and giving lie to the prophesy upon which Macbeth had rested his safety. Meanwhile, the intimacy leads the story — which could be seen as dreamlike from beginning to end — more in the direction of a psychological struggle than a quest for power as such. It is for the viewer to interpret the nature of this struggle, but the early battle scene makes the existence of deeper levels clear. Pulled down to extreme slow motion, in which every detail is revealed, we see the survival of one man set in the balance, while alternately the same man, Macbeth, stands still amid the fury and the killing, gazing directly upon destiny as yet unrevealed in a vision of a kind of Elysium. Colour throughout Kurzel’s film is important. Where red is a baseline, here Macbeth gazes upon yellow. In it lies both the enemy and the source of the prophesy that will lead him astray. Golden is both the pathway to his victory, and also his downfall.

On the one hand, it is easy to take as given in this iconic scene that Macbeth gazes out of the screen directly at the viewer. But this is doubtless not by chance. Levels of meaning are at play here that pass beyond cinematography as such and enter a realm almost of abstract art. And yet there is no concession in the film to art for art’s sake. Everything is operative. And in this the core cast is matchless. Barely can it be imagined that another actor bar Michael Fassbender (Macbeth) would be capable of containing so much unspoken in a single gaze. And indeed Fassbender is mesmerising throughout, in both voice and physical expression, making shallow by comparison all prior portrayals, with only McKellen coming close but from an entirely different angle. Fassbender is raw and visceral. There is nothing jovial, chirpy or shallow here. This is Macbeth stripped down to bare life. Efficient in the way our age is, including in brutality and madness.

No less stunning is Marion Cotillard (Lady Macbeth) who, in one scene recast by Kurzel entirely, where the dead child reappears, layers feeling upon feeling in a labyrinth of emotion equally never seen in any portrayal of Lady Macbeth — and perhaps even in any portrayal of woman on screen. In Kurzel’s treatment, Lady Macbeth is neither scornful, as in the production of Orson Welles, nor demure, as in the production of Roman Polanski. She is strong and beautiful, and the effect is to accentuate the struggle, one around justice in which she is both victim and oppressor, her consciousness of the latter made plain in the scene where Macduff’s family is burned alive. In Kurzel, Lady Macbeth’s madness is not hunger for power, but powerlessness amid the stream of events, mixed in with, and folded through, an original grief. Each intensifies the other, until the boundary between what is real and what is imagined breaks down entirely. As with Macbeth, the tragedy deepens in being both understandable and subject to struggle.

Here we must name the original grief and come back to the opening scene which, upon repeated viewing of the film, indeed becomes the most crucial addition of Kurzel’s interpretation of Macbeth. For all other portrayals appear to have missed the critical clue Shakespeare himself left as to what leads the two main characters on such a ruinous path. Once one takes note of it, one can see the echo repeatedly throughout Kurzel’s adaptation, and hence understand its place. To name it: the unspeakable devastation that must befall any parent, and of which all parents fear, in the untimely loss of a child. The markers Kurzel leaves to this imperative subtext are numerous: Macbeth sees in a young boy on the battlefield a shadow of the future son he lost (he subsequently gives the boy a funeral as though he was his own, while the same boy later appears to lead Macbeth towards regicide, and once again to give him the message that none of woman born can harm him); Macbeth appears pained at heart when Duncan places a hand on his cheek in a fatherly gesture; Fleance greets his father Banquo with an embrace when all return from battle while Macbeth, next in frame, has no child waiting for him; later Macbeth lowers his eyes when the children of the settlement sing for King Duncan. It goes on.

Through the lens of this subtext — the loss of a child — we can equally read the entire relation between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Kurzel in more than one scene suggests a nexus between loss, sexuality and desire for masterdom, alluding to the possibility, in a downcast look from Lady Macbeth upon mention of the “barren sceptre” Macbeth sees as having been placed in his grip (a monologue that in Shakespeare’s play was not spoken in her presence), that Lady Macbeth has been incapable of conceiving since the loss of their son. While her possible infertility is not a new interpretation of that line in Shakespeare’s play, it is not one that has so far impacted widely on portrayals of Lady Macbeth. And yet it is crucial. This is not Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with Adam tempted by Eve against his better nature. This is Adam and Eve already cast out of paradise, and worse: struggling to find meaning in the face of a loss that will erase them entirely from history. That Kurzel places the first appearance of the three witches in the backdrop of the funeral of the child in turn infers that dark forces had a hand in the death of the child.

Given the nature and depth of the loss Kurzel places at the centre of his adaptation, the richness and full — and in some senses true — tragedy of Macbeth comes searing to the fore. Unsurprising, then, that in Kurzel’s treatment Macbeth seems indifferent to being discovered at the scene of the regicide by Prince Malcolm (something that doesn’t occur in the original play). He even takes relish in the monologue delivered to Malcolm directly that the “spring, the head, the fountain of your blood is stopp’d,” appearing unsure, as he holds a bloody dagger to his face, whether Malcolm is real or something that “man may question.” Indeed, at every turn Fassbender’s raw, animal-like demeanour comes to suggest the character of a man who has lost everything, the “tragedy” being not so much his final downfall as how easy it could be to slip out of the grasp of reality in the face of blinding grief. As Joan Didion writes, discussing grief in her appropriately titled The Year of Magical Thinking, “We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy … “

It is the “unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself” that constitutes, Didion writes, “the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is.” It is through this lens that we can interpret the contrasting ferocity and utter calm of Kurzel’s Macbeth. As though placed beyond good and evil, Macbeth resides in a kind of no-man’s land, but nonetheless struggles with echoes of values remembered. The intensity of the first dagger thrust into Duncan can be read in this light, as equally can be read the fact that Macbeth gently lowers himself to lie next to the bloody corpse of the king when the struggle to take his life by force is over. Gnashing animal violence is twinned with an almost haze-like stillness that begs further explanation. Is this really a man anymore in control of his being?

Macbeth’s apparent consciousness of his altered state is underlined in a pivotal scene with Lady Macbeth where loss, sexuality and desire for immortality of a kind (“sovereign sway and masterdom”) come together. It is the same scene that suggests their incapacity to have another child — an accusatory charge — and ends in a single tear emerging from the eye of Macbeth. The same madness for lack of meaning recasts Lady Macbeth’s solitary monologue when the dead child reappears. “To bed, to bed,” gains a double meaning: at once spoken to the vision of the dead child Kurzel puts before her, while echoing its original target in Shakespeare’s text — Macbeth himself. But as killing for Macbeth cannot create a child, “to bed” for Lady Macbeth is an empty refrain. There is nothing there for Macbeth. Hence the repetition of the phrase.

Kurzel’s penultimate intervention that sets the scene for a remarkable conclusion is his recasting of the fated battle between Macbeth and Macduff. Here Kurzel departs from Shakespeare again, enabled by a simple shift in emphasis to the final word in one line: “Lay on, Macduff, and damn’d be him that first cries, Hold, enough!” Kurzel makes of this line a pivot. Macbeth calls out to his own suffering. Enough! The handling of this scene, and effective reversal of the play in the original, is truly beautiful, completed and made plain in the face of Macduff when the fatal stroke has been delivered without resistance. Therein is to be read something far unexpected, and almost unconscionable in other treatments of the Scottish play. In taking Macbeth’s life, Macduff not only redeems himself. He finds himself party to an act of mercy, in which Macbeth grasps for release, and stakes a claim — silently but resolutely — for redemption.

This is a turn Shakespeare himself could not have taken. Writing under the close watch of sovereign power, and amid that competition between twins — the Church and the State — over who between them would define good and evil, clear binaries and vaunted victories for the existing powers were necessary. That Kurzel is aware of this fact is underlined by what concludes his film: Fleance, the son of slain Banquo prophesied to beget a line of kings, picking up the earth-bound sword of Macbeth and running ever faster into a blood red oblivion. This is also something Shakespeare could never have done, it being understood in his time that Fleance had founded what would become the House of Stuart, from which derived the king in power when Macbeth was written. In ending his film in this way, Kurzel not only suggests the cycles of madness and violence that lie at the heart of state power. He draws our attention once again to the eternal return and striving at the very core of having children.

Purists may take issue with what Kurzel has done with Macbeth. But the stage is not the story. And like a true disciple, Kurzel has taken the words of the master of drama and put them beyond time and place, evoking much deeper struggles that speak not only to the annals of history and to the present, but to the struggle for existence silently played out in every family’s genealogy. No greater service could be done to a play magnificent and yet constrained by its moment. Shakespeare, like Machiavelli before him, beguiled the time by seeming like the time. But it is undoubted that he also lay threads extending far into an imagined future: one, perhaps, when the essential struggles of man would be accounted for with more honesty. Kurzel has picked up these threads and woven from them a moving and disturbing, grand and yet ordinary, tapestry.

Is the film without flaws? No. But overall, it is a tour de force that edges on genius. Jed Kurzel’s soundtrack is a work of art in its own right, matching what is visualised with depth and resonance, both haunting and prescient. But ultimately it is the script and how it has been reformed that is the film’s true brilliance. True to the medium of film, reduced to a minimum is the theatrical. Excised is the melodramatic. Even the supernatural nature of the witches is underplayed, or all but absent. What remains is indeed man: one man and his shadow; a warrior on the planes of existence. Once a father. Indeed it is fitting — and perhaps also telling — that Kurzel leaves Macbeth kneeling, dead, on the ground. Because in some ways Macbeth deserved to be left integral, and not hacked apart with his head set on a pole. For Macbeth, in Kurzel’s treatment, is a tyrant, to be sure. But he is one made so more by circumstance than choice, as if man has any real choice when the tale of the idiot is all told.

In the end — but only fully at the end — the tragedy of Macbeth is felt more by himself than any other. That Kurzel leaves Macduff also on the ground as the new king and the English army pass suggests that he saw the void within which Macbeth was held captive, that he himself must now, his family slaughtered, confront. While nowhere is it suggested that tyranny can be justified or forgiven, at the end it is left open to question whether sovereign or state power can contain or resolve the latent civil war in society around the precarious immortality of procreation, and ultimately the statement, “I am.” 

The writer is a geopolitical analyst who has taught politics at universities in the US, UK, Egypt and Palestine.

Macbeth continues to be screened until 29 December (with a possibility of extension) in Cairo's Zawya, (Odeon Cinema), 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown Cairo

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