I know the only movie of consequence at the moment is the new Star Wars installment — but I’d like to spare a word of praise for the new film version of Macbeth, released two weeks ago and sure to flit out of theaters soon. It is, simply put, a work of art.
The last feature version of Macbeth, by PBS’s Great Performances, starred Patrick Stewart in the title role, and had him ascend to power in a 20th-century fascistic state, a sort of Macbeth-as-Mussolini. Director Justin Kurzel has put Macbeth back in his own time and place — clannish, Christianized Scotland of the early part of the High Middle Ages. The result is, first, a feast for the eyes. The fog-veiled Scottish highlands, the candlelit night at Inverness, the raging fire that is the backdrop of Macbeth and Macduff’s climactic confrontation — this is a film that deserves to be seen on the largest screen you can manage.
But Kurzel’s decision also restores to Shakespeare’s tale one of its characteristic features: its brutality. With its “marching” woods and “weird sisters” and refrain of “double, double, toil and trouble,” Macbeth can tend toward the twee for modern readers. It’s anything but. Michael Fassbender plays Macbeth with a gritty muscularity – rightly, I think — and presents a Macbeth who is not a part-time soldier but a warrior in the ancient mold, or a knight — a man who lives by the sword, and so must also die by it.
The original text has been pared down, and Shakespeare purists will bristle. The moral cosmos of the play — so richly examined in Harry Jaffa’s masterly essay “Macbeth and the Moral Universe” — does not map perfectly onto the world of this adaptation. But there is here a raw, animal energy far too often absent from Shakespeare’s dramas of men-at-arms. This is Macbeth reduced to its bone-hard elements: ambition, madness, and violence.
Go see it. A savage, beautiful rendering of one of Shakespeare’s greatest works.