Saturday, January 21, 2012

Movie – Macbeth (2010)

The 2010 version of Macbeth is set in an alternate history, militaristic Scotland.  The time period could be anywhere from the 1940s to the 1950s.  Many quick clips are shown of howitzers and other large weapons of war.  Thousands of soldiers are seen parading through large central squares, not unlike scenes from Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.  Unlike the other two Macbeth adaptations I have reviewed, this one keeps all of the Shakespearean dialogue from the play.  Because of this it runs close to an hour longer than the other two adaptations, but it is definitely the one that is most faithful.  This is the movie that will most satisfy fans of the original play.

Keeping the original dialogue is both a positive and negative.  The positive is that you get all of the famous lines from the play:  “Fair is foul and foul is fair”, “If it t’were done, t’were best done quickly”, “Is this a dagger which I see before me”, “Bubble bubble toil and trouble”, “Something wicked this way comes”, “What’s done is done”, “Lay on Macduff”, “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane”, “no man born of woman”, and of course “Out damn’d spot!”  The negative is that the dialogue can be hard to follow in scenes where other action is going on, drowning out some of the words.  In addition, effects are added to the voices of the witches and this makes much of their dialogue impossible to understand.  You have to really be familiar with the play to follow 100% of what is being said.

If you do want an overview of the plot, I have it in the parent post for this category.  In it you can also find links to the other Macbeth movies I have reviewed.

Patrick Stewart plays Macbeth.  You may be thinking, “hold on – the guy from Star Trek?”  The answer is yes, but long before he was ever in Star Trek, he was doing Shakespeare.  He has always been known as an actor who definitely has the voice and demeanor for Shakespearean roles.  He plays Macbeth with a vigor and passion that belies his real age.  Kate Fleetwood (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1) plays Lady Macbeth.  Martin Turner plays Banquo, Michael Feast plays Macduff, and Paul Shelley plays King Duncan.

The movie opens in a large underground bunker during a battle.  A wounded soldier is being attended to by three nurses and he tells King Duncan of the military victories that Macbeth and Banquo have just achieved.  Wait a minute – three nurses?  Sure enough, these are the three witches.  When everyone else has left, they take pleasure in euthanizing the wounded soldier.

I have to mention that the interpretation of the witches in this production is probably the creepiest I have seen.  The nursing outfits, with the masks over most of their faces, one even wearing big plastic framed glasses, make them a little scarier.  What makes them a lot scarier are some of the effects used with them.  It would not be too much of a stretch to compare those effects to ones seen in recent Asian horror films.  Also making them creepier is that they are present through much of the movie, although in the background.  They are not just nurses, but kitchen staff, serving women, and cleaning maids, too.  It gives a feeling that they are constantly ensuring that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth fulfill their fates.

The sets for the movie give a constant feeling of claustrophobia and decay.  They all seem to be far underground, in dingy rooms, all metal and concrete and tile.  Not once in the entire movie do I remember seeing a window with light coming in wherever Macbeth was.  (There is one scene in England with Macduff where there are windows.)  Now and then some light is seen coming from a deep elevator shaft.  There is not even an outside scene until an hour into the movie, and that is filled with menace as Banquo is trying to take his leave of a Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who are on horses, while he is on foot.  If you saw the German film Downfall (2004) then this version of Macbeth definitely has echoes of it.

Right from the beginning Lady Macbeth is shown as a bit of a neat freak, and a person who always has to be in control.  In her scenes she is sometimes scrubbing a wall or counter, and she is always washing her hands before going to meet someone.  This plays well with her later obsession about washing away the blood.  Imagine how a neat freak would feel about a constant spot of blood on their hands.  It would definitely drive them crazy.

My biggest negative with the adaptation is that despite all the energy he puts out, for me Patrick Stewart is just too old for the role.  He was 70 at the time this was made.  Macbeth should be a man old enough to realize that he has probably plateaued and is unlikely to climb any higher.  This is why his wife’s arguments for achieving something better spur him into action.  Seventy is very late in life to just be realizing this.  Stewart’s age also caused the filmmakers to “age up” most of the other important roles, too.  I have read other opinions that point out Shakespeare never established an age for Macbeth, so there is no reason he can’t be a man of seventy.  I don’t disagree with that argument; I will simply say that my interpretation of Macbeth is a man probably in his 30s, approaching 40, the time when a man starts to take stock of where he has been and where he is going.

My other negative with the film is what I mentioned above about the effects with the witches making their dialogue very difficult to understand.  This is lessened somewhat by Macbeth repeating their prophecies over and over, as if to reassure himself.  I wasn’t bothered by the 2 hour and 40 minute run time, but that might be too long for others.

These negatives are not so bad that it would keep me from recommending this movie.  Stewart does give a great performance in this film.  Speaking of which, if you try to find this movie on IMDB you will be out of luck.  Because it was shown on PBS under the “Great Performances” title, IMDB refuses to list it as its own entity.  The problem with that is the Great Performances series has been running for 40 years, which means finding any individual “episode” of it can be quite difficult.  To make it easier for the folks who want to see what IMDB has on this movie, you can go directly to its page by clicking here.  

This is an interesting and very faithful adaptation of Macbeth.  I definitely recommend it for the Macbeth fans.  If the setting and tone sound interesting to you then I recommend you give this movie a try.  If you hate Shakespeare, then this film will not change your opinion and you should probably skip it.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I'm very curious to see this now. MacBeth remains one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, mostly because it packs in the violence in a short running time. What can I say? I was young when I started reading Billy the Shake, and the carnage appealed to me.

    Like you, I picture MacBeth as a man roughly my own age now--he's climbed as high as he's likely to climb, which makes his ambition a bit more understandable. An older MacBeth simply makes less sense--he should be thinking about resting on his laurels at 70.

    Throne of Blood is still my favorite adaptation of the work, though. All the normal carnage, plus samurai!

  2. @SJHoneywell - You do get violence in this version. While it's not a gorefest, they don't shy away from the fact that blood gets spilled.

  3. Its a bit creepy though
    i really prefer the roman Polanski one

    1. I haven't seen that version yet. It's in my Netflix queue because someone else mentioned it to me, too.

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