Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?


(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television


In response to some big anniversary celebrations going on in the United Kingdom at the moment, I have just succumbed to the urge to watch a movie about regicide.


No, the celebrations that made me do this weren’t those marking Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday, which has predictably caused epic levels of shameless bowing and scraping, toadying, grovelling and brown-nosing in the British media.  To give just one of many examples, the Daily Mail’s Chris Deerin tweeted a photo of the Queen posing with various grandkids and great-grandkids accompanied by the message: “It’s all about a family.  That’s why it works.  It’s beautiful.”  Oh, pass the sick-bag.


I’m actually referring to the festivities marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd.  And the film I have just watched is the Justin Kurzel-directed version of Macbeth, released a year ago and starring Michael Fassbender as the king-stabbing, crown-grabbing title character.  It’s left me with mixed emotions.


On the negative side, the drama feels subdued at times, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that rather takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  I suspect the reason why the cast, which includes Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff and Jack Reynor as Malcolm, downplay things is because the main actors are Irish, French and English and they don’t feel terribly comfortable doing the required Scottish accents.  The film contains a couple of hardy old Scottish character actors as well, David Hayman and Maurice Roëves; but, playing Lennox and Menteith respectively, they’re well down the cast-list.


There’s also much that’s been chopped out of this version of the Scottish play.  It runs for an hour and fifty minutes, which is forty minutes less than the stage production scheduled for the Globe Theatre in London this summer.  Out goes the post-regicide comedy relief with the porter; and most of the “Double, double toil and trouble / Fire burn and cauldron bubble” hijinks with the witches.  There’s no murder scene in Macduff’s castle, which deprives us of the first murderer’s cry of “What, you egg!” followed by the pun, “Young fry of treachery!”  There’s no sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, though she gets to utter her “Out, damned spot” line elsewhere.   And I don’t recall hearing Macbeth intone Act 3 Scene 2’s “Light thickens and the crow / Makes wing to the rooky wood. / Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / Whiles night’s black agents to their prey do rouse,” though maybe it was just buried low in the mix.


On the other hand, the film looks lovely – and that’s in spite of the post-Braveheart quantities of dirt, mud, blood, woad, facial hair and scar tissue on view.  I’m sure Visit Scotland won’t complain about the free advertisement that this Macbeth provides for the Isle of Skye, where many of its outdoor scenes were shot.  Mind you, a good part of it was also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.


(c) Studiocanal S.A. / Channel Four Television


And the final sequence, where Macbeth squares up to Macduff, is stunning.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal and almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie and Todd Louiso have cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.


One element that Kurzel and his writer add to this Macbeth, as opposed to cut out of it, creates an interesting motif.  They preface the drama with a scene where Macbeth and his wife bid adieu to their only child, whose body is laid out on a funeral pyre.  Their subsequent childlessness is contrasted with the situation of Banquo, who has a son, Fleance; and that of Macduff, who has a brood of kids.  (The little Macduffs aren’t put to the sword by anonymous assassins, as in the play, but are tied to stakes on a beach and set alight by Macbeth himself.)  Even the witches here have a couple of offspring — one of them is nursing a baby and there’s a little girl-witch who turns up to help Fleance escape when his father gets murdered.


Indeed, the childlessness / fecundity ironies come thick and fast.  We see Macbeth press a dagger against his wife’s womb at one point and inflict a nasty-looking crotch wound on Macduff at another.  And when Duncan fatefully arrives at the Macbeths’ place to stay for the night, his hosts lay on a choir of little children for his entertainment.  Though it has to be said that Duncan and his entourage watch the show with as much enthusiasm as parents having to sit through a primary-school nativity play.  No wonder Duncan’s bodyguards get so drunk afterwards.


(c) Caliban Films / Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures


Maybe my real issue with Justin Kurzel’s new Macbeth is simply that I kept expecting Fassbender and Cotillard to suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced by Jon Finch and Francesca Annis – who were the stars of Roman Polanski’s version of Macbeth back in 1970, a movie that made a big impression on me.  I was 16 when I saw it, so no doubt one reason why I took to it was because the film’s qualities – its simultaneous bleakness, bloodiness, bawdiness, gothic-ness, gorgeousness, rebelliousness and sophistication – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething in my teenaged head and body at the time.  And also, at 16, I probably felt a connection with the film because Finch and Annis were both so young when they made it.  In fact, their youthfulness suggests they have little power to control their destinies.  They’re swept along with events, propelled by dark forces that are both political and supernatural.


Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics who were upset by its violence and were disturbed by the fact that Polanski’s recent past had been pretty violent too.  In August 1969, his pregnant wife Sharon Tate and four others were butchered at his home in Beverly Hills by followers of the hippie-cult lunatic Charles Manson.  Pauline Kael, the film critic for the New Yorker, even wondered if Polanski’s staging of the murders of Macduff’s family was an attempt to recreate the carnage that Manson had authored in his own life.  Famously, the film’s screenwriter, Kenneth Tynan, challenged Polanski about the amount of blood shown in this scene – to which the director retorted, “You should have seen my house last summer.”


One other cinematic Macbeth I know is the 1948 production directed by, and starring, Orson Welles.  I watched this on TV a long time ago and wasn’t impressed by its apparent staginess and melodramatics – by then I was in thrall to the Polanski version.  However, lately, I’ve watched a few parts of it on Youtube and revised my opinion of it somewhat.  Yes, it’s cheap.  Welles made it for Republic Pictures, a studio that normally specialised in low-budget westerns, had to shoot it on some of Republic’s leftover western sets and had only a 23-day shooting schedule.  But scenes like Act 3 Scene 4, where Banquo’s ghost shows up at the feast with ‘no speculation’ in his eyes and shaking his ‘gory locks’ at his killer, are surprisingly well-staged.  Though I suppose you’d expect that from Welles.




There are problems, however.  Though he was only 33 at the time, Welles was already getting portly and resembled Falstaff more than Macbeth; and it doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.


(c) Republic Pictures / Mercury Productions


And then there are the accents – dear God.  Welles’s American cast dial the fake twee Scottish-ness up to 11 and roll their ‘r’s for minutes at a time.  Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth gets shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, ends up sounding like Scottie in Star Trek.  Meanwhile, the witches’ accents are so piercing that they remind me of Molly Weir in those advertisements that she used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching.”


So all respect to Orson Welles and Justin Kurzel.  But at the end of the day, it’s Polanski’s Macbeth that’s the Macbeth for me.


You can’t Beta good western


(c) DMC Film / Film 4


The Beta Band were a Scottish group active from 1996 to 2004 whose songs showed a wide range of ideas and influences and incorporated a wide range of sounds and samples.  Appropriately, if not very concisely, their Wikipedia entry describes their oeuvre as ‘folkatronic, experimental music, downtempo, indie rock, Scottish, folk.’  I quickly heard about the Beta Band because their drummer, Robin Jenkins, had attended the same high school that I had in Scotland and so a lot of people I knew were talking about them.  But during the years that they were on the go, I never warmed to them.  I found them a bit too self-consciously eclectic and improvised.  Having a sound that seemed all over the place didn’t endear them to me, even if it was in the name of art.


Eleven years after they disbanded, I’ve recently listened to their double-album swan-song The Best of the Beta Band (2005) and I’ve decided that, actually, they were really good.  Maybe I’ve matured and my ears have become better attuned to quality.  Or maybe the Beta Band simply sound an awful lot better in retrospect, after a decade when the contemporary music scene has been dominated by the dire and ghastly Simon Cowell; and when the best new acts you can hope for seem to be ‘landfill indie’ guitar bands, whose best bits sound like the work of older and superior bands like Joy Division, the Jam and the Undertones and whose other bits sound like an anonymous sludge.


Now the Beta Band’s DJ, sampler and keyboard-player John Maclean has turned his hand to film-directing and he currently has a film on release, a western called Slow West.  As you might expect from someone involved in Maclean’s old musical combo, it’s an eclectic affair.  Its ingredients are more disparate than, say, the ingredients of those 1960s spaghetti westerns where Clint Eastwood would ride into town, mumble a few words, smoke a few cigars and kill a few people.  Slow West features among other things a trio of Congolese musicians; a pair of husband-and-wife Swedish bandits; a German social anthropologist who’s studying the Native American tribes; a bounty hunter masquerading as a clergyman; a haunted forest; some flashbacks to simpler, more innocent times in Scotland; and some slapstick comedy involving a washing line that wouldn’t have gone amiss in an old Laurel and Hardy movie.


Wisely, though, Maclean doesn’t let things get too disparate.   He reins in – that’s a good phrasal verb to use when you’re talking about westerns – these elements and the result is a film that’s eccentric and varied in character but that nonetheless has a narrative that’s lean and linear.  Kodi Smit-McPhee plays Jay, an innocent love-struck teenager who’s pursed the girl of his dreams from the Scottish Highlands, over the Atlantic and across the 19th-century American West – where things become wilder and more dangerous the further west he goes.  He ends up hiring a mysterious, hard-bitten and not-necessarily-honourable bounty hunter called Silas, played by Michael Fassbender, to act as his guide and guardian.  It’s a wise move, as throughout the movie danger intrudes in a number of forms – other bounty hunters, outlaws, natives and not-to-be-trusted fellow travellers, all in possession of that volatile trigger-happiness that seems endemic to characters in western movies.


Actually, I read once that gunfights in the Wild West were rare because of the high price of ammunition and the low wages of the average cowboy.  Shoot-outs like the one at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s bloodbath The Wild Bunch (1969) would probably have left the survivors bankrupt.


Slow West has a fine cast.  Fassbender is his usual dependable self and there are good performances too from Ben Mendelsohn as a shifty rival bounty hunter and Caren Pistorius as the girl whom Smit-McPhee is searching for.  You also catch a glimpse of Alex Macqueen, who played the oily Julius Nicholson in Armando Iannucci’s caustic political sitcom The Thick of It, in the role of Smit-McPhee’s unsavoury uncle back in Scotland.


(c) DMC Film / Film 4


But Smit-McPhee gives the film’s most engaging performance.  He’s memorably naïve and vulnerable – but stubbornly set in his ways.  In fact, he pursues his romantic dream with a hapless and somehow Scottish determination that reminds me of a similarly dreamy, hapless, Scottish and determined male adolescent, the title character played by John Gordon Sinclair in Bill Forsyth’s Gregory’s Girl (1981).  Yes, we’re talking Gregory’s Girl out west here.  That’s how odd this film is.


In one of the film’s best sequences, Fassbender and Smit-McPhee get wasted at their campfire with a bottle of absinthe.  Smit-McPhee goes for a wander, returns to the campfire and after a while realises that he’s sitting at someone else’s campfire.  It’s the sort of anecdote that a teenage lad would delight in telling, bragging to his mates about how drunk he got the other night.  The difference here is that the people whom the inebriated Smit-McPhee finds himself sharing a campfire with are ones who’d happily cut his throat.


Kodi Smit-McPhee, incidentally, first made his mark in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.  I find this disconcerting.  Why, it seems only yesterday that he was the little boy accompanying Viggo Mortensen through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, facing cannibals and other post-apocalyptic unpleasantness.  But today, he’s the romantic lead in a western.  God, they grow up so fast…


As you might expect from a film made by a musician, Slow West has a pleasingly lyrical feel to it.  But it isn’t as bloody and violent as the last western made with major creative input from a musician, 2006’s The Proposition, which was scripted by Nick Cave (and was also directed by John Hillcoat).  Slow West has a high body-count, admittedly, but there’s less viciousness involved than in The Proposition – people shoot each other, and people die, but often there seems a haphazard, accidentally quality to it all.  Too many guns are being waved around by people who really don’t know how to use them.  (This, of course, bears no resemblance to the situation in America today.)


It’s also a lot less grotty than The Proposition, a film whose verminous, lank-haired characters made you grateful that someone finally got around to inventing shampoo.  Maclean even includes a scene where Fassbender shaves Smit-McPhee with a knife-blade – clearly this is a vision of the Wild West where the blokes have time for their personal hygiene and grooming.


Do I have any criticisms of Slow West?  Well, the German character, Werner (Andrew Robertt), feels a little too similar to the one played by Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2011) – although he’s not onscreen for long, so it hardly matters.  Also, while we never doubt that Fassbender’s character will eventually do the right thing, his transformation near the end to good guy, from morally-ambiguous guy, feels a little too abrupt and fast.  But generally, watching Slow West is a near-flawless way to spend 85 minutes of your time.


I’ve always been a big fan of western movies and it’s irked me that, during the last three decades, the genre has almost petered out of existence.  However, if filmmakers continue to make westerns very occasionally, and if the very occasional western that comes trotting along is as good as Slow West, I think I’ll be happy.