A Tale of Two Macbeths

There are, of course, more Macbeths than two. Within even the original tale, Macbeth is split between believer and skeptic, moralist and killer, loyalist and traitor, guilty and innocent, all within a few hours. Many adaptations examine or add layers, and there are more film adaptations have been made, reader, than can be covered in this single blog post.*

But two of the most recent adaptations stand out through their drastically different approaches:

Macbeth – Justin Kurzel’s gritty, saturated, PTSD-riddled character study which keeps a few stage conventions but mostly leans into its more filmic aspects.

The Tragedy of Macbeth – Joel Coen’s hazy, black-and-white, machination-laden adaptation which neatly splits the difference between stage and screen.

I want to examine both through directorial and performer approaches.

Particularly interesting is where in their careers the directors and lead actors are. Kurzel was coming off the back of his very first feature, a surprise hit crime drama set and shot in his native Australia. Joel is of course a global name with decades film experience and Oscar wins, though he usually works with his brother Ethan. Their titular character is played, for Kurzel, by Michael Fassbender, and for Coen by Denzel Washington, both award-winning powerhouses, but one who is young and up-and-coming, the other who is an experienced veteran. Both directors have chosen an actor who is closer to their own age, which shifts the narrative significantly, and where that actor is in his career also shifts how we perceive their Macbeth.

Where Fassbender had alternated between blockbuster-handsome-face (X-Men, Prometheus) and experimental indie fare (Frank, Shame), Denzel brings decades of leading man roles, iconic speeches enshrined in pop culture forever, and a plethora of well-known turns as both loving and violent men. We believe Fassbender’s Macbeth has seen many things and is a soldier on the brink, but we also know immediately Denzel’s Macbeth has fought and won dozens of battles.

Because of the actors’ history, their characters’ smarts, breakdowns, beliefs, particularly their physicality come from different places (for the actors) and reference points (for us the audience). When Fassbender takes up a sword, anything could happen, and Kurzel embraces that unpredictability. But whether Denzel faces his advisors or a man with two swords, we KNOW what could happen, and bluster, bellow, dodge, punch, and out-smart he does, using his now-thicker but always-perfectly-commanded body in ways as powerful as Easy Rawlins or Alonzo from Training Day, and that sort of dependably explosive ethos is what Joel imbues his whole film with, keeping the text completely true to the original and surprising us never with what violence or actions occur, only sometime with how they are carried out.

The approaches to the text are quite different; while both accept the basic tenets of the prophesy, Kurzel makes explicit the assumption the Macbeths had lost a child, leans into Macbeth’s madness driving the self-fulfilment, and fleshes out the idea “not of woman born” by making it not just about Macduff, but exploring how Lady Macbeth’s miscarriages drove her into depths of grief and post-partum depression. The spectres which haunt the characters are seen to be psychic, and have modern-world analogues even though the society of the day had no clear terms for them. Kurzel chooses to read the “woods moving” more poetically, lighting the woods on fire and having them drift over Macbeth’s land in the form of burning embers and ash.

Meanwhile Coen changes only two words** and doesn’t modernise anyone’s backstory or motivations: lust for power never changes. Yet within this slavish, literal text, he uses everything from contortionists to CGI to lend credence to the potential of supernatural interference, while still keeping events within the realms of reality; for example by letting us consider Macbeth’s water-filled room as a drug-induced hallucination, and acknowledging a post-mortem c-section for Macduff. Coen also keeps with a traditional reading of the “woods moving” by having soldiers cut down branches and carry them as part camouflage, part psychological warfare.

While you can read the director’s choices for Macbeth as avatars for themselves, inserted in one of the most iconic characters of all time, it’s much more interesting to read them as using this complicated character to explore many of the things which interest them at this point in their lives, and such examination must also include the film’s aesthetics, choices of metaphorical and literal manifestations of ghosts and visions and prophecies, and how they utilise the audience’s knowledge of their past canon to inform the art they’re making next.

Stray Observations

*yes I’m aware that’s a different play; no I don’t care.

** I’m fairly sure just the two, which have to do with sons and birthing, probably mostly motivated by Lady Macbeth’s post-menopausal status.

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