A Casualty Of War

It was a rainy Tuesday night in these parts, but the Michael Fassbender / Marion Cotillard performance of Macbeth just happened to come in the day’s mail, so the opportunity was perfect for giving it a look.

One thing is immediately striking:  Scotland itself is a presence in the film.  That is not always the case, especially on stage, where the country’s influence on the characters–their language, the way they live their lives–can only be hinted at, if mentioned at all.  But film is a completely different medium from the stage, allowing both greater scope and intimacy in the acting than the stage, which is limited in size and insists upon an audience’s close attention if not participation in the action.  We see King Duncan, Macbeth, and Macduff set within a physical milieu that makes sense; we see the hardness of their lives burned into the faces of the young boys sent off to war; and we are given the suggestion that that hardness is perhaps more of a motivation for the ambition of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth than a simple lust for power.

This particular Macbeth is a soldier on a lengthy campaign for Duncan.  He loves his wife, but he barely knows her.  Fate robs them of the chance of genuine connection through the untimely death of their child, and this lost child motivates much of what they do and say in the play.  Macbeth’s ambition is thus two-dimensional, rather than one.  It is not just that he sees Duncan as a self-satisfied ruler, better replaced with someone else; he also sees in the prophecies of the Weird Sisters an opportunity to have a better, richer life with his wife.

Macbeth’s hallucinations are grounded in the trauma of combat and bloodshed.  What is less clear is how Lady Macbeth descends from a woman of ambition in support of her husband to a victim of madness.  It certainly happens but, if you blink, you’ll miss it.

The great speeches are here, delivered not as soliloquies but as intimate utterances and voiceovers against the landscape.  Fassbender does a commendable take on “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,” and he nails “the multitudinous seas incarnadine,” one of my favorite Shakespearean passages.  Cotillard compliments him well as Lady Macbeth the wife, but I would have liked to see this very fine actor cut loose with a little more bloody-mindedness.  She’s certainly capable of it.

What we get in this Macbeth is realism.  From the very first shot through the initial appearance of the Weird Sisters merely moving through the landscape not as ghosts but as three solitary women, we get a play grounded in the tough, bloody world of medieval Scotland.  We see Macbeth himself as the wounded warrior he was.  What we don’t quite see, except for the moments I’ve mentioned, is his royal bearing–the king he could have been.  But the violence of the film’s opening scenes brought home to me the possibility that the ancient kings, steeped in blood and crowned through combat as most of them were, carry mostly a sense of the soldier about them.  Our modern sense of their “royalty,” Shakespeare points out, may be an illusion, a hallucination just as vivid but just as misleading as the dagger Macbeth sees before him.

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