Paul Brian McCoy: With the BBC’s current round of Shakespearean adaptations completed with somewhat mixed results, the gallant honey-tongued Kelvin Green and my humble self, set out to explore an earlier work by the most successful of the Hollow Crown directors, Rupert Goold.
In December 2010, the BBC aired his film adaptation of Macbeth, based on his stage adaptation for the Chichester Festival Theater in 2007. Patrick Stewart played Macbeth with Kate Fleetwood as Lady Macbeth, in a production utilizing Soviet-era costumes and sets.
What were your first impressions, Mr. Green?
Kelvin Green: Well, the reason I suggested this one was because I had vivid memories of watching it in 2010 and loving it. Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play, and this is a cracking adaptation.
Watching it again for this review, I was still just as impressed, if not more so.
Paul: It is a vivid work on the screen, I admit. Especially as this was, I believe, Goold’s first film work. He makes the transition from accomplished stage director to impressive film stylist almost effortlessly.
Kelvin: Yes, we saw Goold’s skill with visuals in Richard II, but he shows a similar flair in this, all the more surprising given that, as you say, it was his first film.
Paul: I almost wish I’d seen this before Richard II, if only to really appreciate his development as a film director. Instead, there were a few small missteps here and there in Macbeth that might not have stood out for me like they did.
But it did make me realize just how impressive Richard II really was.
Kelvin: Yes indeed. What missteps did you identify?
Paul: Maybe “missteps” is too harsh. There were a few stylistic choices that worked, but kind of took me out of the film – most notably some of the scenes with the witches.
Kelvin: That’s interesting, because the way the witches were handled was one of the things I liked most about it.
I loved how it was shot like a horror film, and the portrayal of the witches was one of the strongest parts of that.
However, there were a couple of moments that did seem a bit stagey.
Paul: It was the switch to a kind of industrial music and the almost Jacob’s Ladder kind of editing that put me off. But it was really only in the scene where Macbeth comes back to the morgue for a “consultation.”
It turned kind of music video-y.
Kelvin: I can see that. The Jacob’s Ladder type of approach is something I really liked, but I can see why it might be jarring to others.
Paul: Their introduction was fantastic. It was mainly that later appearance that I thought could have been more effective. The quick, sped-up Jacob’s Ladder bits are a pet peeve of mine. I get annoyed whenever that gets used.
Kelvin: Ha! Fair enough. For my part, I appreciated the confidence in framing a classic play as a horror movie.
Paul: It was just jarring, given how much the rest of the film stays centered and avoids overtly tinkering with the scenes in the editing room.
Kelvin: True, but do you not think that it adds to the otherworldly quality of the wyrd sisters?
After all, they are supernatural beings.
Paul: I suppose. But I would have preferred to make them otherworldly in-set. That opening scene with them building the effigy was creepy and disturbing without turning it into a Nine Inch Nails video.
Kelvin: I see what you mean. It was jarring and unsubtle, but that worked for me.
Paul: Fair deuce.
Outside of that, there wasn’t much negative to point out. I thought the story dragged a bit in the middle, but that’s kind of par for the course with Shakespeare. Especially given how dynamic and impressive the first and final portions of the film are.
Although I thought that middle stretch did a fantastic job allowing both Stewart and Fleetwood to slowly go insane in different ways.
Kelvin: Yes, although I love Macbeth, the section between Macbeth’s doing away of Banquo and the siege by his enemies has always been a bit of a drag, and so it was here.
You’re right about Stewart and Fleetwood too. It’s always interesting seeing how the Macbeths are portrayed, and they did a good job here. At the start, you got a good sense that they do in fact love each other, whereas the obvious way to go is to have Lady Macbeth be a scheming villain and Macbeth himself as hapless and easily led.
Paul: True. I’ve seen so many different productions of Macbeth over the years, that it’s refreshing to see a performance that really stands out as original. Although, to be honest, I can only think of one production that just flat-out failed (more on that later).
Seems like it’s hard to make a bad Macbeth.
Kelvin: Yes, there are easy choices to make in portraying the central roles, but the play remains strong.
Paul: You could do a series that just reviews adaptations of Macbeth and run for quite a while. There are at least ten adaptations worth talking about.
Kelvin: I could do that!
This was a bit more nuanced and risky, and all the better for it. I also liked, for example, how once Macbeth gets into the villainy, he seems to relish it, and then Fleetwood starts to show a sort of fear at what she’s created. I don’t recall seeing Lady Macbeth played like that before.
Paul: Yes! I don’t know if it’s just my memories failing me or not, but this was one of the first times I remember Lady Macbeth being played this way. Of course, the guilt always comes through eventually, but it’s subconsciously with the sleepwalking and such. There is a touch of dread here that I really liked.
Kelvin: Yes, I think the traditional approach is to have her go mad through guilt, but this was something different, a pre-insanity realisation that her husband has an aptitude for villainy.
It was also interesting to see Stewart, good old cuddly Picard and Xavier, as the tyrant.
Paul: It was! He was downright frightening at times. I think using the Soviet setting, Goold really was able to bring out some subtleties that usually remain below the surface. The whole purging sequence was very effective.
Kelvin: Yes it was. Although we’ve talked about the supernatural aspects, and the way it was shot like a horror movie, a lot of the horror came about as a result of the use of the Soviet imagery.
It’s impossible not to think back to Stalin’s purges, which is of course what Goold was going for.
Paul: Agreed. Just that opening sequence, alternating between the historical footage and under-siege approach to the establishing dialogue was more vivid and engrossing than anything in the final three Hollow Crown adaptations.
It makes Goold’s Richard II all the more impressive that it was able to create this same sort of immediacy and impact while staying in the traditional setting.
Kelvin: Yes indeed. He showed in Richard II that he can do a more traditional approach and yet make it visually interesting and refreshing. They make a good pair, his Macbeth and Richard II. Lots in common, but plenty of contrasts too.
Richard II was so light and bright and open, but Macbeth had this appropriate sense of claustrophobia and darkness.
I think there were only one or two external scenes in Macbeth, and they were overcast. Everything else was either indoors or deep underground.
Paul: I think there not being a “definitive” Richard II helped him there, but he definitely put his own stamp onMacbeth.
Kelvin: Yes, a good point.
Chichester is only about half an hour from me. I should have gone to see the original stage production.
Paul: I’d like to go back and rewatch the Ian McKellen Richard III from 1995 now, if only to compare the ways they invoke totalitarian regimes in their productions.
Kelvin: I haven’t seen that one, but after watching Macbeth again, I do want to compare and contrast. They must have had it in mind when they decided on the setting for Macbeth.
Paul: You would think. I don’t remember that film pulling it off as successfully as this, though. For some reason that I can’t remember anymore.
Anyway, back to Macbeth.
Paul: I thought that the final confrontation was very nicely put together, with Macbeth’s mad “graced by god” freedom really being brought home. That indestructible feeling is palpable in Stewart’s performance without turning cartoony (as it did in the film adaptation, Men of Respect, with John Turturro and Peter Boyle).
Instead of turning to fear when Macduff reveals he was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped,” there’s a sense of nihilistic acceptance once the horror washes over him.
Kelvin: Yes, I thought that was quite good. Up to the end, he showed no fear. That is reflected earlier on when his reluctance to murder the king is not out of cowardice, but because it’s not the right thing to do.
Stewart’s Macbeth shows a lot of strength.
Paul: That Men of Respect version was horrible. Turturro is Macbeth and Boyle is Macduff and in their big confrontation, it’s a massive shootout (they’re gangsters), and finally Boyle shouts, “I’m not a man a’ woman born! And I’m gonna kill ya!” Then Turturro panics. Awful. Just awful.
Kelvin: Oh dear. I’ve not seen that, and I’m not sure I want to.
Paul: It hurt.
Kelvin: Someone thought it was a good idea.
Paul: Yeah. Writer/Director William Reilly in his only directorial effort.
Kelvin: Perhaps it’s for the best.
Paul: He also wrote the Demi Moore and Bruce Willis masterpiece, Mortal Thoughts.
Kelvin: Oh, now that’s a pedigree. I wonder if that’s based on Romeo and Juliet?
Paul: He hasn’t worked in film since. I wonder if he died or just left film? Now I’m vaguely curious.
Kelvin: This is the kind of thing they make Sundance-winning indie documentaries about you know.
Paul: But again, back to Macbeth; was this the first time that the scene with Malcolm feeling unfit to rule due to his lusts was included in an adaptation? Because I don’t remember that before.
I liked its inclusion, but it took me by surprise.
Kelvin: Me too. I watched it and thought “hang on, this is new” so it may be the first time it’s been included. I can see why it might be dropped for reasons of pacing, but I liked it here. It gave the “heroes” a bit more complexity.
Paul: Exactly! I loved the idea that Malcolm could easily see himself turning into a monster even worse than Macbeth if he gets his hands on the throne.
It made that final shot of him holding Macbeth’s severed head even more disturbing.
Kelvin: And it ties in with the witches’ prophecy, because of course he doesn’t stay on the throne for long.
Paul: How long did it take for Banquo’s heirs to come to power? I’m ignorant of the actual history here.
Kelvin: Oh, I don’t know the history, but I’ve always assumed that Fleance becomes king, so Malcolm’s reign is short.
A quick bit of research reveals that Banquo and Fleance were likely fictional, and were drawn from another work. So Fleance usurping Malcolm is just an impression I’ve had, with no basis in anything.
Paul: Ah, it looks like James I based his claim for the throne on being a descendent of Banquo. That was 1567.
Kelvin: Yes, so that nice bit of context I was talking about wasn’t context at all. Oh well.
Paul: Ha! Oh well.
So it was 500 years later that the witches’ prophecy came “true”, about 40 years before Shakespeare wrote the play.
It’s kind of crazy how fictional characters became so accepted as real that claims to a throne were based on them. And held up!
So don’t feel bad!
Kelvin: Yes, I suppose it was the Swift Boat of its day.
So, is there anything else you want to talk about?
Paul: I think that might be everything. How about you?
Kelvin: No, I think that’s it. Stewart and Fleetwood were excellent, the production took some risks and pulled them off, and I loved how it looked like something out of Silent Hill. I think we’ve covered all of that.
Paul: The only thing we haven’t mentioned that could maybe stand a look was the dinner party where Banquo’s ghost appears. I went back and forth with it, loving some elements, but being put off by others.
Kelvin: Oh, go on.
Paul: It was an odd scene. There were elements of humor, horror, satire, and then a musical number. It was very strange.
Kelvin: The dancing and singing did seem a bit out of place, yes.
I liked how Banquo stands on the table amongst them all. In most productions and adaptations I’ve seen, he’s been sat at the table.
Having him standing there while they’re eating is all the more weird and off-kilter.
Paul: I loved that bit. Thought it worked wondrously. And Stewart’s complete engagement with the apparition was horrifying. I thought it probably should have played out in the reactions of the others more, though.
He and Fleetwood were the most affected by the moment.
Kelvin: True. He engaged with it to such an extreme extent that it was odd that no one else really reacted. On the other hand, they had just established that everyone was in fear of saying or doing the wrong thing around him, so perhaps that’s what they were going for.
Paul: True, true.
We should probably at least devote a few lines to a couple of the most famous bits of the play. The “is this a dagger I see before me” and “out out brief candle” scenes.
Kelvin: The dagger scene was one place where I did think the film stumbled a bit. I don’t know what could have been done differently, but it didn’t quite work for me.
Paul: Agreed. There was a little too much fever-dream in the delivery, if that makes any sense. It maybe would have played better if it were more of a rumination than a vision. Allow it to become a vision as he goes on, maybe?
Kelvin: It wasn’t the most subtle of productions, and as I’ve said I enjoyed the lack of subtlety for the most part, but here it seemed too much insanity too soon.
Paul: On the other hand, I loved the brief speech after hearing that his wife is dead. I thought that was pitch-perfect.
Kelvin: Yes, I’d agree.
Paul: Having her body there to focus on seemed to bring out the weary sadness of the lines.
Kelvin: Yes, weariness is spot on. There’s a proper sense, from that moment on, that he’s had enough and just wants it all over and done with.
Paul: Moments like that more than made up for any misgivings I had earlier in the production. Like the porter’s interaction with Macduff and his family. What the hell was that?
I almost forgot to mention that scene.
Kelvin: Yeah, that was a bit odd. The porter’s speech as he’s going to the door was quite effective, I thought, but the bit after was odd.
Paul: Exactly. Very strange.
So, final thoughts then?
Kelvin: I was quite taken with this adaptation when it was first shown in 2010, and coming back to it now I think I like it even more. I don’t know if it’s as good as Goold’s Richard II, but it’s one of the best Macbeths I’ve seen.
Paul: I’d say it ranks up there in the top three or four Macbeths I’ve seen, but being the debut film work for the director it’s all the more impressive. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Kelvin: Yes, he’s certainly got the talent for these things. It’s a shame he didn’t stick around for the whole Hollow Crown season.
Paul: Do you know if the Macbeth production was related in any way to the plans for The Hollow Crown? I read one 2010 review that mentioned the BBC’s plans for the 2012 season, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone but Goold connecting the two.
Or was it just a BBC adaptation like King Lear a year or so earlier?
Kelvin: It wasn’t announced as being part of anything bigger and was tucked away on BBC Four, the digital arts channel, while The Hollow Crown was on the higher-profile BBC2. Macbeth was a bit of a critical success though, so it may have led to the BBC putting the later series of films on a more popular channel.
Paul: That sounds about right. Combine that with Olympic build-up and I think we have all our motivations out in the open. I wonder if there’s any planned follow-up? The Hollow Crown was pretty successful, wasn’t it?
Kelvin: I would hope that there will be more. Although The Hollow Crown had its weak points, it was good to see Shakespeare on TV again.