A hard-core journey into the world of a fearless warrior
Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel’s thrilling interpretation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a visceral and dynamic re-imagining of what wartime must have been like for one of Shakespeare’s most famous and compelling characters. Set in war torn Scottish landscape, it’s a hard-core journey into the world of a fearless warrior and inspiring leader brought low by ambition and desire and all-consuming passion.
Of all of Shakespeare’s classic works, Macbeth must surely be among his most famous. Certainly, in the more than 400 years since its first publication, it has been one of the most frequently adapted; revived regularly on stage and re-envisioned time and again in the age of cinema and television.
The tragic tale of a Scottish general haunted by his own ambition, and a prophecy that he will one day become King of Scotland, has long fascinated actors, directors and audiences, and on the big screen has led to adaptations by directors from Orson Welles to Roman Polanski.
But with a new generation of British actors commanding the stage, as well as screens big and small, producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman of See-Saw Films felt the time was right for a new approach to Macbeth.
Notes Jack Reynor, who plays Malcolm: “Greed is a really terrible thing that can corrupt on a monumental scale, and it can destroy people’s lives. So the story of Macbeth is particularly poignant when you take into account the economic climate of the past few years.”
The filmmakers felt that the globalised nature of the world today offered an opportunity to increase the scope of the story on the big screen and give Macbeth a modern feel.
“What I think has been very strong in this adaptation is the sense of community and the wider world that exists around these characters,” Canning notes. “We’ve expanded the idea that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth exist within a world, that they were a product of it and that their actions affected it. We’re exploring the story from a much more modern, cinematic place.”
Preserving Shakespeare’s language was always key for the filmmakers. “You’d end up making a very different film if you’re not using the rules of the verse and dialogue,” Canning notes. “Our challenge was to cut the play in the right ways, and bring together the right filmmaking team so that people would forget they were listening to something slightly unusual or classical.”
“We approached it with simplicity,” says Michael Fassbender, cast in the role of Macbeth. “We never tried to work against the verse or just disregard it, but we kept things simple and tangible, and the idea Justin had from the beginning was to be a lot more intimate with the text than we’ve seen before, but always truthful. As with any script, you don’t set out to sabotage this tremendous writing but you work with it and ground yourself within it.”
Continues director Justin Kurzel: “You’re bringing the verse into the cinema, and there’s something about doing it to another person one-on-one as opposed to a live audience, and I think something happens when you have another actor opposite you and the camera is so close and intimate. You forget about projection and instead play to the intimacy.”
“We had to really work at it because Shakespeare can be hard to understand, even for English people,” notes French actress Marion Cotillard, cast in the role of Lady Macbeth. “But it created an energy that carried us the whole way.”
“It was terrifying,” admits Reynor. “But it’s one of those things where, if it wasn’t going to be difficult then it probably wasn’t worth doing in the first place and I really did relish the challenge. It’s been amazing to have the opportunity to bring this verse to life with this cast, with no formal Shakespeare training.”
What the verse offers, though, is something Shakespeare has always been renowned for: the use of language as manipulation. And in Macbeth, manipulation is very much the name of the game. “You watch Michael with Marion or Michael and Paddy and it feels like a scene out of Goodfellas, with all these characters trying to manipulate one another in very clever, very conniving ways,” explains Kurzel. “There’s a subtext to that which is unspoken and it’s really interesting in Macbeth in that there’s a secrecy and tension that happens which is almost conversational as opposed to artificial.”
It’s surprising then to learn that the adaptation began a decade and half ago when Jacob Koskoff and Todd Louiso took it on, imagining Phillip Seymour Hoffman, whom they had worked with on Love Liza and The Fifteen Minute Hamlet, in the title role. The project almost got greenlit in 2004, but then languished.
After Hoffman’s tragic death early 2014, it resurfaced when producer Iian Canning asked to option it. He then put director Justin Kurzel, Koskoff, and Louiso together to reawaken the script.
Though the final shooting draft was further honed by Michael Lesslie, many key reinterpretations of the original play, including Lady Macbeth’s famous “Out damn spot” soliloquy and making real the idea that the Lady and Macbeth have lost a child at the drama’s outset – an idea the 400-year-old play only vaguely insinuates.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been screened numerous times, featuring many of the biggest names from stage, film, and television.
- Joe MacBeth is a 1955 British–American crime drama, directed by Ken Hughes and starring Paul Douglas, Ruth Roman and Bonar Colleano.It is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, set in a 1930s American criminal underworld. The film’s plot closely follows that of Shakespeare’s original play.
- Throne of Blood (蜘蛛巣城 Kumonosu-jō?, literally, “Spider Web Castle”) is a 1957 Japanese film co-written and directed by Akira Kurosawa. The film transposes the plot of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth to feudal Japan, with stylistic elements drawn from Noh drama.
- Macbeth (or The Tragedy of Macbeth) is a 1971 British-American film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. Directed by Roman Polanski, it retells the story of the Highland lord who becomes King of Scotland through treachery and murder. The film stars Jon Finch as Macbeth and Francesca Annis as Lady Macbeth
- The first series of The Black Adder (TV, UK, 1983), written by Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson, is a parody of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly Macbeth, Richard III and Henry V.
- Men of Respect is a 1990 crime drama film, an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, directed by William C. Reilly. It stars John Turturro as Mike Battaglia, a Mafia hitman who climbs his way to the top by killing his boss.
- Scotland, PA is a 2001 film directed and written by William Morrissette. It is a modernized version of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The film stars James LeGros, Maura Tierney, and Christopher Walken. Shakespeare’s tragedy, originally set in Dunsinane Castle in 11th century Scotland, is reworked into a dark comedy set in 1975, centered on “Duncan’s Cafe”, a fast-food restaurant in the small town of Scotland, Pennsylvania.
- Maqbool (Hindi: मक़बूल, Urdu: مقبُول) is a 2003 Indian crime drama film directed by Vishal Bhardwaj and starring Pankaj Kapoor, Irrfan Khan, Tabu and Masumeh Makhija in an adaptation of the play Macbeth by Shakespeare. The plot of the film is loosely based on that of Macbeth with regard to events and characterisation.
- Shakespea Re-Told is the umbrella title for a series of four television adaptations of William Shakespeare’s plays broadcast on BBC One during November 2005. In a similar manner to the 2003 production of The Canterbury Tales, each play is adapted by a different writer, and relocated to the present day. The plays were produced in collaboration by BBC Northern Ireland and the central BBC drama department. In August 2006 the four films aired on BBC America.