Kurzel’s Macbeth

I dare do all that may become a man.
Who dares do more, is none.

Does the world need another movie of Macbeth?

Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’ has been filmed over 20 times. Most recently in a BBC version with Patrick Stewart (2010) and Geoffrey Wright’s Melbourne gangland interpretation with Sam Worthington (2006). Most notably in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and  Polanski’s 1971 film, with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the title roles. In 2015, we have a new interpretation by Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, The Turning) starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. Shot in Scotland with an Australian director and Irish-German and French leads, this new version is billed – naturally – as a new American movie.

Many of the films have followed stage productions, keeping a focus on the two main characters as they descend into a hell of their own making, much as contending armies are described in the opening of the play, ‘As two spent swimmers that do cling together, And choke their art.’ Other characters, the settings, and landscapes are there essentially as a backdrop to the horror of the Macbeths’ self-destruction, taking so many others with them.

Kurzel’s Macbeth, though, is a spectacle in the best sense of the word. The bleakly-beautiful landscapes and settings (not to mention an impressive cast), all work together together as a fluid unity which complements the text. It feels more Scandinavian than Scottish at times (a reminder that much of the country was a Viking colony in the Middle Ages), Each frame is like a carefully assembled canvas, with close-ups of faces, mountains, lakes, and washes of colour and motion. This painterly aspect of the film reminds me of Symbolist artists such as Rops, Moreau, or Redon, where the stylised landscape similarly ‘orchestrates’ the emotions of the human drama portrayed. It’s no coincidence that Kurzel worked in set design (for Bell Shakespeare among other companies) before turning to directing; the film’s art direction is superb.

This Macbeth was born of a conversation between Kurzel and Fassbender, so it is ironic that the leading man’s portrayal of the tragic hero of the play is the weakest part of the film. The actor brings his familiar professionalism and intensity to the performance. Fassbender has spoken in interviews of imagining Macbeth as a soldier traumatised by the savage losses in his life – including a dead child whose funeral is seen at the start of the film. He attempts to fill this loss with yet more savagery, murdering Duncan to achieve the ‘safety’ of becoming king himself. All the actor’s intensity seems turned inward however. Macbeth so often seems to be talking to himself rather than for the audience’s benefit. Shakespeare always requires a little flamboyance (however subtly done) to bring out the colour and poetry and majesty of the lines, yet Fassbender seems to deliberately avoid this in his performance. To see how he plays the famous ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ speech, and then compare with how Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan do the same is an education.

Macbeth belongs to Marion Cotillard, however. She moves convincingly from a sexual temptress – taunting her husband to show he is a man by killing his king – to a weeping mad creature, horrified at the monster she has created. She is an extraordinary actress.

The film is worth seeing for her performance alone, but so much more too.


Loving the alien

Under the Skin – the new movie from Jonathan Glazer – begins with a beautiful and eerie sequence, disconcerting the audience so that we are unsure what, or who, is on screen. This introduces the entire mood of the film.

Note: plot details revealed.

Scarlett Johansson’s character arrives on an alien planet. Here are monstrous creatures. They are grotesque and unpredictable. Though she knows their language, the gabbling, howling sounds they make are almost incoherent. Now and then they launch into random acts of violence. Yes, welcome to planet earth. These are ordinary humans going about their various business in modern Britain.

Johansson has arrived on earth to harvest us. She cruises the streets of Glasgow in a white van, looking for the lonely and the friendless to lure home. Here they are seduced into another dimension where the flesh is sucked from their bodies. She delivers her chat-up lines in a perfect English accent – who would not follow Scarlett wherever she led you? The images of streets, shopping centres and clubs are seen though her eyes, as bizarre, chaotic, noisy – Glazer makes them seem alien and strange to us too.

In the most chilling scene, she is walking at the beach and sees a child get into trouble in the water. She watches calmly as the parents throw themselves into the waves, to save him, making no move to help herself. They all drown, leaving a toddler alone and screaming on the beach as dusk starts to fall. Johansson turns and walks away. This inconceivable act shocks the viewer into realising that she cannot be called ‘callous’, simply because she is not a human. She is merely indifferent, as one would be to see ants scattering in panic underfoot on a woodland walk.

Later she trips in the street and is puzzled by the efforts that strangers make to help her. She hurries away in search of her next victim. Johansson’s unnamed character soon comes across a suitable prey: a friendless young man, disfigured by neurofibromatosis, the condition which affected ‘the elephant man’. She seduces him with remarkable sensitivity (‘You have lovely hands . . . do you want to stroke my face?’) The lonely, disabled young man at last provokes some empathy from Johansson’s character. She lets him go. After this ‘human’ act of betrayal, she flees, hunted herself now by her alien ‘controller’ on earth. She discovers the beauty of the Scottish landscape, the tenderness of a loving man and the horror of a violent one who wants to rape her, until the inevitable end.

Glazer is an elegant filmmaker. Under the Skin is not cluttered with sci-fi tropes, but delights with original imagery that is breathtaking and moving by turn. Johansson’s house: dingy and ramshackle on the outside but with an interior that is a limitless black sea. The football scarf which one of her victims innocently flies from her van window. Johansson’s fingers hesitantly beginning to tap as she discovers music. The curiosity with she examines her naked self, discovering beauty in the ordinary curves and angles of a human body. It is a testimony to the actor and director that there is nothing voyeuristic in this scene, only a curious poignancy. The final moments of the film are as beautiful as they are horrific: doused in petrol and set alight by the attempted rapist, Johansson’s alien walks through a forest as a column of fire, as tall as a tree.

As well as in its originality, Under the Skin is reminiscent of a number of films which bring an alien consciousness and viewpoint to bear on the human condition. Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death. Kubrick’s 2001. Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth. Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. In all of these, aliens, angels, or replicants encounter the mystery of humanity, with varying results. Glazer’s alien is first indifferent, then intrigued by the people she meets – all down-to-earth Glaswegians. In the end she discovers an empathy for our infuriatingly complex species. Like the little mermaid in Hans Christian Anderson’s story and a host of gods in mythology before her, Johansson’s alien creature is seduced by mortal life and pays the unavoidable price.