Tagged: justin kurzel, macbeth, michael fassbender, orson welles, throne of blood
8 November 2015
It was released too late for our earlier discussions on Orson Welles Macbeth and Throne of Blood, but I just managed to catch the most recent version, which everyone seems to be calling the Michael Fassbender one, since I guess the director, Justin Kurzel, isn’t so well known. It received very good reviews, which is impressive I think for any film which has been previously done by so many prominent directors.
I’ve no background in Shakespeare scholarship, so its always hard to review these films without knowing the context, so I can only compare it to the other versions I’ve seen, and I think it stands up very well. It manages the tricky balance of being very cinematic, while very true, not just to the original play, but to the original context. It is set unambiguously in early medieval Scotland, using gorgeous Highland backdrops with lots of suitably medieval dirt and grime (although historical pedants would note that the castle and cathedral used as sets for the later part of the story date to at least 2 centuries after the historical MacBeth.) It is highly visual, with the final scenes being almost Bayhemic in scope. Kunzel opts for a more naturalistic approach to the dialogue than most which matches the ‘realistic’ setting. I haven’t compared the film to the original, but i think that compared to any of the other versions of Macbeth I’ve seen, he has altered the narrative pattern and ‘script’ more than any other (apart of course from Kurosawa).
Much of the focus of critics has been on Fassbender and Cotillard as the leads. Fassbender is excellent, although I found his delivery of some of the lines a little dull. Cotillard is marvellous, incredibly watchable (if I was pressed to name the greatest actor at work in film today, I think I’d choose her). But I have to say that neither gave what I’d consider to be a particularly interesting or novel approach to the characters or any really new interpretation. The film does focus on the death of their child (alluded to in Shakespeare, made central here), but as so often with this play, Kurzel still I think struggles to work out exactly what is driving the characters. I think Welles Macbeth was much better at this side of the play. I also think Kurzel was very conscious of the previous versions and tried to avoid replicating them, which is admirable, but does result in a rather duff interpretation of why the forest seems to ‘move’ to the castle.
But as usual when watching films like this, I kept thinking of Kurosawa and his approach. The one thing that did occur to me after the film that I think makes Throne of Blood (and Ran) so great was prompted by the ending to this version. I think it was Prince who commented that a key element in Kurosawas versions of Macbeth and King Lear was that he recognised that Shakespeare was fundamentally a conservative – in Macbeth (as with almost all his historical plays), the ending is typical – the ‘rightful order’ is fully restored with the ‘true King’ back in his throne. Kurosawa of course wasn’t interested in such a weak ending, he knew that the underlying truths of the play required something more ambiguous, less easy to stomach. The point that occurred to me is that Kurzel, along with Welles, Polanski, and pretty much every other director I can think of always tries to interpret Shakespeare. Kurosawa tried to improve Shakespeare. Thats the greatness and uniqueness of Throne of Blood. Kurosawa dared to make it better.
That’s a bold statement to make about Kurosawa! And I might actually subscribe to it. One thing that I like about Kurosawa’s version is that he seems to fully embrace the play’s inherent idea of predestination and see what he can do with it, unlike many people writing on Macbeth who keep doing their best to wriggle their way out of the inconvenient notion of a predestined world. It is especially here that I would agree that Kurosawa, rather than interpreting the play, tried to make it better.
I too saw the “Fassbender Macbeth” last week and while I quite liked it, my reactions to it were similar to yours. It is visually lovely. There are many films where you can say that individual frames are like paintings, but here that feeling is especially strong, and the film often even stops to let you enjoy its static compositions.
But I also agree that the performances, especially Fassbender’s, could have been more interesting. This I think is more of a criticism of the script and the direction than the acting work. Macbeth’s inner struggle, I felt, didn’t quite come through gradually or organically. It could have been more nuanced, but perhaps this was not that kind of a film to begin with, also visually.
While I was a little disappointed with how the confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff was handled, I enjoyed the very end which nicely takes into account the prophecy about Banquo’s son ultimately taking the throne. It seems that the bloodshed resulting from the witches’ prediction is not yet over with Macbeth’s death.
This is of course different from Shakespeare, where the future of the throne was also strongly implied, but in another way. Although the play ends with Malcolm taking the throne and the matter therefore seemingly closed, Elizabethan audiences would have understood that this would not be how the story of the prophecies ends. In real life, King James claimed descendence from Banquo’s son Fleance, and the play therefore neatly worked as a propaganda piece for the new king’s legitimacy to the thrones of both Scotland and England.
In Shakespeare’s source for the play, Holinshed’s Chronicles, Banquo is in fact noted to be an accomplish to Duncan’s murder. But Banquo was made a more positive character in the play, probably as it wouldn’t have been convenient for King James to follow Holinshead too closely.
9 November 2015
One thing that I like about Kurosawa’s version is that he seems to fully embrace the play’s inherent idea of predestination and see what he can do with it, unlike many people writing on Macbeth who keep doing their best to wriggle their way out of the inconvenient notion of a predestined world.
I don’t know whether it was directly through personal experience growing, or through his love of Noh, but Kurosawa always seemed open to having folkloric concepts (such as fox demons or marebito) in his films without any resort to irony or an attempt to ‘explain’ such notions. I think it is typical that he embraced the notion that the play really is about predestination, without the vague embarrassment that many western directors would have with portraying the notion that the characters had no agency whatever. With Shakespeare, he seems willing to have embraced the deeper archetypes within the plays.
I think Kurosawa improves the story by giving Macbeth coherence. I love the symmetry of the opening and closing. Kurosawa was a master of pace and structure.
rereading macbeth. . . as preparation for my first ever viewing of Throne of Blood.
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