Macbeth on Screen
Of all Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth is arguably the one most crying out for cinematic treatment. It is the shortest of the Bard's tragedies, a relentless and violent fever dream. The story features battle scenes, witchcraft, nocturnal regicide, civil war and a climax where an entire forest is uprooted and moves towards Dunsinane castle (not easy to do on stage!). Unsurprisingly, then, "The Scottish Play" has been catnip to movie directors at least since Orson Welles's low-budget production in 1948.
After the tour-de-force debut of Citizen Kane in 1941, Welles’ star dimmed quickly. A series of debacles followed his precocious masterpiece, and by 1948 the one-time prodigy was box-office poison. Macbeth was produced on the relative cheap, filmed at a breakneck pace, and the result is a frayed, febrile tone poem. This is Shakespeare as lurid film noir, featuring English literature's ultimate femme fatale, Lady Macbeth (Jeanette Nolan). Welles is a charismatic, power-hungry Macbeth, but his real innovations are behind the camera. The sets and inventive cinematography induce a fever-dream atmosphere, all fog and shadow and slanting compositions. The silhouetted Weird Sisters are nightmare fodder. Though nowhere near a definitive on-screen Macbeth, Welles proved that visual verve can make up for a tight purse.
Throne of Blood (1957)
Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood -- which transports Macbeth to 16th century Japan -- is one of the great films of all time, visceral and visionary. Largely faithful to his source material (absent the Elizabethan language, of course), Kurosawa also drew on elements of Noh theater and Western cinema to create an exhilarating fusion: Samurai Shakespeare. Toshiro Mifune is a primal, powerful Macbeth / General Washizu, while Isuzu Yamada is an absolutely terrifying Lady Macbeth / Asaji Washizu -- her menacing stillness and control would make Hannibal Lecter's skin crawl. Kurosawa's unflagging visual invention creates a ghostly, haunted world, a poetic equivalent to the play's vivid language.
Rated X when it premiered in 1971 and financed by Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, Macbeth was the first movie Roman Polanski made after the shocking murder of his wife, SharonTate, at the hands of the Manson Family in 1969. The result is post-traumatic cinema: bleak, nihilistic, and harrowing. Shot on location in Northern Wales, the film has a rainswept, mud-caked realism: the witches are dirty, ugly hags, and pigs scurry through the muddy ground of Inverness. The climactic sword fight between Macbeth and Macduff is brutal, clumsy and earthbound. And in a sequence of astonishing savagery, Polanski essentially restaged the invasion of Macduff's castle by the forces of Macbeth as the Manson Family massacre. The final scene – with the newly-crowned, seemingly noble Macduff visiting the Three Witches – is cynical and devastating.
This is the filmed version of the legendary 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company stage production starring the peerless Ian McKellen and Judi Dench. As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth -- "the happiest married couple in all of Shakespeare," as Harold Bloom quipped -- they burn up the screen with their fierce, combustible passion. The production is spartan, with little scenery and unfussy costumes; the focus is on the actors and their centripetal performances. “Full of scorpions is my mind,” Macbeth confesses to his wife; he is “bound up in saucy fears” by his own overwrought imagination. McKellen gives an appropriately twitchy, sweaty, high-strung performance, until Macbeth's paralyzing nihilism takes over in the last act. He delivers the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy with a shattering sense of grim resignation. In spite of the spare sets and costumes (or because of it), this might be the scariest Macbeth, exploring an inner world of guilt and crumbling sanity more frightening than anything Three Witches could conjure.
Playwright John Osborne called Nicol Williamson the greatest actor sinceMarlon Brando, and both thespians shared a willful eccentricity. Williamson doesn’t seem comfortable in his elongated body; hishangdog face stays mostly immobile as his eyes dart about feverishly, his voice seems to shift octaves at random, and hisbreath comes in start-stop bursts. Yet Williamson’s performance is effective because Macbeth isone of Shakespeare’s most insular characters, a top-heavy warrior who dwells anxiously on the painted picturesof his “heat-oppressed brain.” In other words, the part doesn’t suffer frombeing infused with a quirky, off-kilter quality. Jane Lapotaire matches Williamson with a powerful, sultry Lady Macbeth, pushing the sexual boundaries of these usually tame BBC productions with an orgasmic "Come you spirits..." soliloquy.
This made-for-TV Macbeth turned it into a post-apocalyptic action flick, opening with Macbeth and Banquo zoomingabout the blasted heaths on motorcycles. Sean Pertwee plays a macho, swaggering Macbeth, determined to prove hismasculinity. Greta Scacchi dominates thefirst half as the woman of “undaunted mettle,” Lady Macbeth, but also edgy and neurotic. By killing Duncan and assuming the throne, Macbeth finds his manhood, transforming from a meat-and-potatoes soldier under the thumb of hisbetter half into a tyrannical monster. Pertwee, likewise, comesalive in the second half and commands the screen with his newfound intensity. Meanwhile neglected Lady M. takes to pill-popping and drinking to fend off impendingmadness. This is a cogent, fresh production with clear character arcs and strong performances.
The low-budget Australianadaptation traded kilts for leather jackets and broadswords for berettas, butit captured the play’s “fitful fever” intensity. Directed by Geoffrey Wright -- who helped make Russell Crowe a movie star by casting him as a neo-Nazi in Romper Stomper -- cast another young Aussie and future Hollywood hunk, SamWorthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) in the title role. This is a slick and stylish Macbeth, effectively updating the warring Scottish clans to a Godfather-style clash of mafioso families Down Under. The Three Witches are naked raver party girls and the climactic attack on Dunsinane is a Scarface style shootout with a high body count. Whether Elizabethan groundlings or 21st century moviegoers, the public still craves sex and violence.
Based on a celebrated 2007 stage production, this version boasts riveting performances by Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, respectively (both were nominated for Tony awards for their stage incarnations). The setting evokes some Eastern European, post-Slavic state in the midst of social breakdown and brutal power grabs. Stewart makes for an imposing Macbeth, whose "vaulting ambition" is aided and abetted by a cunning, calculating Lady M. Shot on location at Welbeck Abbey, Macbeth is visually gripping and fast-moving, while retaining much of the play's original text. A fabulous introduction to the play for anyone who wants a compelling and largely unabridged treatment.
The look is right: kilt-clad warriors caked in blood and mud, witches wandering fogswept moors, and lots of dim flickering torch and candlelight. The film opens with the funeral of Macbeth and his wife’s child, and never quite shuffles off the atmosphere of grim mourning. But it is an artful, visually arresting adaptation with much to recommend it: the moody, muted cinematography; the lived-in earthiness of the sets and costumes; the compelling lead performances. Grim visag’d Michael Fassbender—with his weathered handsomeness, haunted eyes and husky lilt—radiates tightly coiled intensity. Marion Cotillard suggests deep psychic damage thinly papered over with icy ambition and cruelty. There are clever visual touches, such as the scars on the faces of the witches, suggesting they’ve suffered persecution (even the witches in this film have a tragic backstory). Macbeth forcing his wife to watch the burning of Macduff’s family lends crucial weight to her psychological breakdown, which can seem abrupt or even arbitrary if not handled deftly. Overall Kurtzel’s slow burn, mumblecore Macbeth never quite catches fire, even if the climax stages an all-out conflagration at Dunsinane, but is well worth watching for its atmosphere and performances.