Additional dialogue by…

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I was lucky enough to be invited to the UK premier of MACBETH, which made me feel quite the dude, until I looked at my wardrobe and realized I was going to have to take a whimsical approach to the dress code “smart”. I also met lots of people I know there, which made me feel well-connected. There was a splendid after-party and I utilised it in moderation as I had work the following day, so all in all it was a very good afternoon/evening, apart from the film.

The film isn’t too bad, though — that was a dirty trick I pulled at the end of  that paragraph. The crowd responded with enthusiasm, en masse, though I caught some mutterings later.

All of the acting is decent, though I didn’t love any of the actors. I love Martin Shaw in the Polanski version. I love Mifune and Mrs. Mifune in THRONE OF BLOOD, more for their pyrotechnic displays of theatrical technique than as characters, but they are close to my heart all the same.

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The accents are good, though Marion Cotillard’s is pretty different from everyone else’s. It’s a shock whenever Malcolm (Jack Reynor) speaks, because he doesn’t sound like he’s doing Shakespeare — he sounds like he’s saying something he just thought of. By this reckoning he’s probably the best actor in the film, but he creates a problem for everyone else, because if that’s what a person talking is like, what are these?

The film looks pretty stunning. The locations on the Isle of Skye are brooding and dramatic and spectacular, and it’s nice seeing my native country used in a cinematic manner. Some of the Northumberland scenes look exactly like Polanski’s version, though. The designers have perversely chosen quite a Russian Orthodox look for the architecture and costumes, but this mostly works quite well, apart from the kingly robes which seem a bit samurai to me. Stuff can be the wrong period or the wrong setting as long as it isn’t jarring.

What people said:

Alex: “Paddy Considine has the world’s most disapproving beard.”

Jonny Murray: “Who’d have thought the old man would have so much mud on him?”

Emma: “It’s a shame these things can only happen with big movie stars doing big acting. Ken Loach could do Macbeth.”

Me: “But look at Fassbender in FISH TANK. Why couldn’t he be as natural in this?”

Yes, this is another muddy MAC, calling to mind the classic MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL exchange (“Must be a king.” “Why?” “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”) — only in this version, even the king gets covered in shit. Michael Fassbender turns up plastered in peat in one scene with no explanation of how it got there, and you hardly notice, because everybody’s always filthy. And all the rooms are draughty. The Macbeth’s bungalow creaks in the wind like a ship in a gale. The scenery is splendid but I wouldn’t want to live here. Oh, wait,

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I didn’t feel like anybody in the film had a relationship with anyone else. Lady Macbeth seemed basically mad from the start, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) was a savage barbarian who then goes totally psycho. Usually you get the sense that Banquo and Macbeth are mates. I have to say — the continuing problem of the Festival Theatre’s accoustics and sound system meant that I may have missed stuff that would have helped forge this connection.

The adaptation is an odd one — lots of interesting ideas. I just didn’t think they worked. The film is at pains to answer that academic’s question, “How many children did Lady Macbeth have?” According to this film, two. We open on a dead baby, so we surmise that this tragedy isn’t going to be a comedy, and then there’s a teenage Macbeth Junior who dies in the opening battle. At the risk of coming over like Tom Stoppard, who has protested the tendency of directors to treat Shakespeare’s text as a sounding-board for their own ideas, I think a productive question for academics may not be so useful for filmmakers. The Macbeths have no children that we meet in the play. To create one for the film presents a challenge — he can’t say anything, and nobody can say anything about him. So the kid dies, and Macbeth writes a letter to his wife — about some women he met on the heath. No mention of son. When Duncan  congratulates Mac on winning the battle for him, he doesn’t add, “And by the way, sorry about Junior.” We need to talk about Macbeth Jnr!

The filmmakers bring this doleful kid on as a ghost, and have him holding the dagger which Macbeth sees before him. So the line, “Come, let me clutch thee,” is addressed to his son. Who then leaves — things were getting oddly homoerotic — and Macbeth continues talking to thin air, delivering lines written to be addressed to a dagger, as if to a dead son. Who isn’t there anymore.

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The most egregrious abuse of Shakespeare is right at the start, actually, when the witches say, “Where the place?” “Upon the battlefield.”

That’s right. I seem to recall that line once reading, “Upon the heath.” Which fits the rhythm, and has an assonant connection with the following line, “There to meet with Macbeth.” This feels like a Weinstein Bros idea. Macbeth has a vision of the witches while he’s in battle. Couldn’t the battlefield be on a heath? A kind of battleheath, if you will? Apparently somebody thought this would be confusing, so it was better to rewrite Shakespeare. “Additional dialogue by…” The Weinsteins have a long history of explanatory overdubs, with exposition blasting from the back of actors’ heads the moment they turn away, just to make sure we understand what Harvey wants us to understand. This fiddling has actually occurred at script stage, though, so we can have bad exposition with good lip sync. The filmmakers can’t hear will rotate in his grave because they’re simply not on his frequency.

There are other mismatches of word and action. When we are told that Macbeth “unseamed” the traitor “from the nave to th’ chops,” clearly stating, albeit in flowery language, that he splin him open from stomach to throat, we are shown Macbeth simply lopping the guy’s head off. It’s genuinely like the director didn’t read the play, or even the script. I wouldn’t like to suggest that this was a particularly Australian tendency (George Miller, for one, always matches word to deed with striking accuracy), but the last time I felt this weird disconnect was at Baz Luhrmann’s MOULIN ROUGE! in which E. MacGregor sings “You see, I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue,” while looking straight into N. Kidman’s eyes. They’re blue, Ewan. She’s right in front of you. I’d be worried about that kind of memory loss.

When Macbeth talks to one of his murderers after Banquo’s assassination, he does it at the banquet, with everyone else standing around silently, listening to the secret murder plot echoing around the hall. You can play it that way, and it doesn’t necessarily contradict anything later, but that scene always seemed to work really well when nobody knew Macbeth had Banquo offed, and so his embarrassing flake-out when he sees his former chum’s corpse at table exposes a dirty secret and causes Lady M. to fly into hostess mode, trying to put an acceptable spin on things.

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One thing the movie works hard to fix is Shakespeare’s missing scene — Edith Evans always complained that it was impossible to play Lady Macbeth’s plunge into guilty madness right after the banquet. “She was perfectly fine at supper.” Using visual scenes, our Aussie director Justin Kurzel is able to suggest a credible, gradual descent — but then blows it spectacularly by killing her offscreen with no explanation of how she died. I do think we need to know. Wouldn’t her grieving husband ask?

It goes on… Macbeth and Macduff smash each other to pieces and disembowel each other, and only get around to the “untimely ripped” bit at the very end of the fight. Untimely indeed. I can’t even be bothered going over why that’s a goofy choice.

I said to a colleague, bright and un-hungover at work the next day, that the film was dramatically kind of dull.

“More of a Michael Slowbender?” he asked.

“Michael Grimbender,” I clarified.

Which doesn’t even mean anything. That’s me, full of soundbites, signifying nothing.

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38 Responses to “Additional dialogue by…”

  1. You don’t mention Orson Welles’s version, which – for all its virtues – imagination in setting and camera-work especially – has the worst collection of Scottish accents in captivity, with Welles showing that if his Irish accent in The Lady from Shanghai was bad, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

  2. The Scottish play is all-played-out, IMO. The Welles and Polanski renditions are OK but I prefer Glenn Close teaching it to her acting class at the start of Chris Terrio’s (superb, barely known) Heights

    Michael Fassbender isn’t ‘all that.” Far from it. He’s quite short you know though “gifted by God” (thank you Steve McQueen). To me he’s what Benedict Cumberbatch detractors say about HIM.

  3. Shakespeare is not cinematic.

  4. Qu’est que c’est “cinematic”?

  5. There’s something beautifully archaic in Shakespeare, as if he were still living (and thinking) in a Medieval mode. I’m not sure the demands of deep space illusionism suit these plays.

  6. We need a magic lantern Macbeth.

  7. The best off-stage Shakespeare we have is Welles going into his schtick on a talk show.

  8. Shakespeare exists in the mind. He rots on the screen.

  9. Olivier’s logic for using stylised settings for Henry V seems sound, even if what he did with it is a bit of a gimmick grafted onto the play: “I was worried the audience would say, So that’s a tree, and that’s a house, and that’s a horse — why is everyone talking so funny?”

    You either need to make the text seem natural, or make the world seem as stylised as the language. Either is quite possible. Welles’s world is “cinematic” and deep and spacious, but also quite dreamlike and unreal, with Othello almost as disjointed as The Trial, and Macbeth modeled quite closely on the staging of his voodoo stage version.

    I’d welcome a production that uses settings as artificial as Rohmer’s Pervival le Gallois. Or performances where the actors own the text and make it seem quite natural — which is perfectly possible.

  10. We need a Vorkapich Macbeth.

  11. Welles’ stuff — and you kind of admit as much — comes off as filmed plays.

  12. Even the Battle of Shewsbury I Chimes at Midnight ?

  13. but i like the dialogue better.

  14. Welles’ stuff is the perfect blendship of the filmic and theatrical, at least as far as Chimes (my fave Welles Will) is concerned.

    Welles can’t ever be stagey because his frames are ALIVE.

    The problem with most filmed WS is when the filmmakers have a boring idea of theatre, based on cliche. Welles said, “You have no idea how beautiful Shakespeare can be when spoken by people who have never heard it before.”

  15. Adam Dawtrey Says:

    Hi David, why do you think the kid on battlefield was Macbeth Jr? I didn’t get that at all. To me he was just a scared boy whom General Mac puts a paternal arm around – entirely consistent with the film’s reading of Mac as a bereaved father whose grief at his own child’s death makes him lose his moorings and spiral into nihilism.

  16. Maybe you’re right. I couldn’t understand why so much emphasis was then placed on this kid, with him turning up as a kind of ghost holding the dagger. I only decided he was Mac Jnr at that point, because nothing about his role as a loyal young casualty made sense with his appearance as a manigestation of M’s pre-murder guilt.

  17. There’s also Joe Macbeth, a sort of bonkers gangster version which veers into the original here and there with Sidney James doing pretty good straight acting before he turned into Sid.

  18. I recall the modernized TV play Macbeth on the Estate, directed by Penny Woolcock, being very good. Naturalistic modern settings and performances, with the original blank verse.

    Wrote about Joe Macbeth here:
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2008/11/09/sound-and-fury/

  19. henryholland666 Says:

    My favorite adaptation of the Scottish play:

  20. Yeah — of course it’s kind of an advantage in a way not to have to wrestle with the dialogue. And you have a free excuse to reinvigorate the story by transplanting it to another culture. I love all of Kurosawa’s cinematic solutions here, though I find it a less involving film than many of his others.

  21. In that sense, you could look at the Kurosawa as ザ・スコットランドプレー Or マクベス.

  22. Have you seen Bela Tarr’s MacBeth? I like that a lot too. Whether Shakespeare is cinematic or not, MacBeth definitely is.

    I agree with what you say about the notion of introducing academic ideas into adaptations. Sometimes it can work but not always. It’s one reason why I don’t like The Innocents since it privileges one interpretation of The Turn of the Screw (Edmund Wilson’s Freudian reading) over the text itself, which has a bunch of stuff going on that doesn’t necessarily have to do, or rather is not entirely separate from the issue of repression (which is definitely there).

    Like Welles’ Falstaff is certainly a revisionist look at the Henriad where Prince Hal is now the villain but it’s done in a way that isn’t entirely handicapped to that single perspective.

  23. Welles was also making his own story out of it by shaving off everything not directly impacting on Falstaff.

    Jonathan Miller is our master of the Big Idea, which gets imposed on the text whether it likes it or not, but I do think his ideas are more sophisticated than Kurtzel and co’s, and some of them work like gangbusters. His adaptation of MR James, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, is a travesty of the author’s intentions and a masterpiece of screen terror.

  24. Oh, and I haven’t seen the Tarr. I must!

  25. henryholland666 Says:

    I noticed last night that Roman Polanski did a version of Macbeth in 1971, is it worth seeking out?

  26. Very much so! It’s not my favourite Jon Finch performance, though he’s an actor I adore, but the mix of Dark Ages grit and psychedelic horror is really something. And cinematographer Gilert Taylor’s evocation of a widescreen Goya sabbat is to die for.

  27. henryholland666 Says:

    Thanks, I’ll have to seek it out then. *sigh* I have 22 movies parked on my DVR, including 3 Godard and 3 Bresson movies, I need to be more diligent in watching them. :-)

  28. It’s always the ones you feel you OUGHT to watch that get put off indefinitely.

  29. henryholland666 Says:

    A good example of that is “Kanal” from 1957, about the Warsaw uprising. It gets great reviews but I know how that works out for the resistance fighters so it sits on my DVR…..

    TCM had a mini-Bresson festival, I watched “A Man Escaped”, which I liked a lot and “Pickpocket”, which I didn’t like much at all. I still have “The Trial of Joan of Arc”, “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Au Hasard Balthazar” to watch.

  30. I saw the Kurzel Macbeth last night. Went in with no expectations (I’d avoided reading your post on it because I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by your splendid prose). I agree with everything you say above. I know the play well, but found this adaptation confusing, murky & silly. The uniform whispery monotone of the actors was irritating until I realised it reminded me of Limmy’s drug-fried character, Dee Dee, after which point I started to find it disturbingly hilarious. The DoP is the star here, along with the location manager. I wonder if there was a far gorier cut? I hear the director’s previous film is famous for being almost unbearably violent… if so, the only remnant of that version is MacDuff’s superb broken nose at the end, like a mashed cherry tomato. I have rarely been happier to see end credits roll.

  31. Yes, the nose was impressive, wasn’t it?

    I didn’t like Macduff vomiting chip oil when he finds the king dead. I thought, “If that’s his reaction here, what’s he going to do when he hears about his wife and kids? Tear his own head off?”

    Actually, the actor handles THAT scene quite well.

    It’s possible the film will play better, and be more clear, for an audience which DOESN’T know the play — but we’ll have to see if, like Lurhmann’s Romeo, it can actually attract such an audience…

  32. I think it’s a bloody brilliant film.

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