Who is the Macbeth-est of them all?


© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+


I recently watched The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), directed by Joel Cohen (without, for the first time ever, his brother Ethan co-directing) and starring Denzel Washington as William Shakespeare’s king-stabbing, crown-grabbing Scotsman.  Meanwhile, in the role of Macbeth’s spouse, the ruthless Lady Macbeth, is Cohen’s real-life spouse Frances McDormand.  It’s difficult to sum up my reaction to the film. I suppose you could say: liked it… stopped liking it… started liking it again.


The opening sequence, the aftermath of the battle between Scotland and the combined armies of Ireland and Norway, takes place on a beach.  Thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s monochrome cinematography, it’s palely, clammily and impressively atmospheric.  Mind you, within a couple of minutes of hearing the performers’ accents – Ralph Ineson speaking broad Yorkshire, Harry Melling speaking broad RP and Brendan Gleason speaking broad Irish – you realise this isn’t going to be a particularly Scottish take on the Scottish play.


Enter Washington’s Macbeth, speaking broad American, and Bertie Carvel’s Banquo. They encounter the Weird Sisters (Kathryn Hunter) and hear their fateful prophecies.  Soon after, the prophecies start coming true as Macbeth is made Thane of Cawdor thanks to his valour during the battle.  And the plot – literally a plot, with Washington and McDormand conspiring to kill Gleason’s King Duncan and seize the Scottish throne – is underway.


So, for me, the film gets off to a strong start.  I went off it, however, when the action relocates to Macbeth’s castle, where Duncan spends the night as a guest, and we get the build-up, execution and aftermath of his murder.  Ironically, this was because of something many critics have praised the film for, its stylised sets and lighting, which give the castle’s interior the look of a perspective-bending M.C. Escher illustration, shot in the manner of a German expressionist silent movie or a 1940s American film noir.


My problem was that the shafts of stark white light (necessary to produce the black shadows elsewhere) and the sense of silence, stillness and solidity evoked by the sets make a nonsense of Shakespeare’s theme that, by murdering Duncan and violating the human social order, Macbeth sparks a chain reaction with violent effects in the natural world too: “Where we lay / Our chimneys were blown down and, as they say / Lamentings heard i’ th’ air, strange screams of death / And prophesying, with accents terrible / Of dire combustion and confused events… / …Some say the earth / Was feverous and did shake.” Well, you don’t get any impression of falling-down chimneys, lamentings, dire combustion, confused events and feverous earthquakes in an environment as still and sombre as this.  In fact, there’s little suggestion that night-time occurred at all – the castle windows seem to blaze permanently with light.


I actually didn’t respond well to the overall, stylised, sometimes artificial look of the film, though I suspect that’s just me.  I spent some of my formative years in Scotland, so to me the places mentioned in the play – Glamis, Cawdor, Fife – aren’t just names but real geographical locations.  I prefer Macbeth movies with proper Scottish landscapes, with primordial mountains, moors, glens and lochs that to my mind create an appropriate backdrop for the dark and bloody goings-on.


© A24 / IAC Films / Apple TV+


However, The Tragedy of Macbeth regained my interest later on.  The sequence where Macbeth has his second meeting with the Weird Sisters is staged with wonderful inventiveness and thereafter the movie gets its second wind.  The slaughter of Macduff’s family is impressively done too, conveying the cruelty of the deed without descending into a bloodbath.  (As the first murderer assaults one of the young Macduff-lings, he utters the memorable Shakespearean cry, “What, you egg!”, although the punning follow-up line, “Young fry of treachery!” is excised here.  Also removed is the doomed youngster’s exclamation, “He has kill’d me, mother!”  At school, while my classmates and I studied Macbeth for the Scottish O-Grade, we found this really funny for some reason.)


One thing many critics have remarked upon is the age of the two leads. Washington and McDormand are both in their late middle-age, no longer able to have children.  This makes their murder of Duncan and the seizing of the throne more egotistical – they aren’t doing it for their line, which doesn’t and won’t exist, but purely for themselves.  Their childlessness, of course, contrasts with the fecundity of the two thorns in their sides.  Banquo has a son, Fleance, and Macduff has a whole brood of kids.  It also underlines Macbeth’s wariness of Banquo, for whom the Weird Sisters prophesise: “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.”


Elsewhere, my impression of The Tragedy of Macbeth was that some things worked well and other things less well.  Kathryn Hunter is splendid as the Weird Sisters.  There’s only one of them who’s flesh and blood, though that twisted, contorted body of hers seems to be inhabited by the spirits of all three.  The figures of the other two only materialise in the physical world as reflections – Macbeth’s and Banquo’s first sighting of them, at the edge of a pool, is memorably creepy. Perhaps Hunter’s performance gets slightly too Andy Serkis at times, but it’s still very effective.


On the other hand, the promotion of the character of Ross (Alex Hassell) from being one of the original play’s interchangeable Scottish thanes to, here, being a Machiavellian, possibly even supernatural, manipulator who’s playing both sides – he delivers the warning to Lady Macduff about Macbeth’s evil intentions, but also turns up as the mysterious third murderer who does for Banquo, and there’s even a suggestion that he has a hand in Lady Macbeth’s suicide – is intriguing but doesn’t really come off.  With the Weird Sisters, the play already has Machiavellian manipulators.  It doesn’t need any more.


© StudioCanal / Film4


It’s interesting to compare this Macbeth with the cinematic adaptations that have come before.  I preferred it to the Justin Kurzel-directed version, released in 2015, which despite a great cast – Michael Fassbender as Macbeth, Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth, David Thewlis as Duncan, Paddy Considine as Banquo, Sean Harris as Macduff – seems rather subdued, thanks to the amount of low-volume muttering and mumbling going on that takes the fire out of Shakespeare’s lines.  It also chops out parts of the play that, while admittedly hammy, I’ve always enjoyed, for example, 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 Weird Sisters.  At least in The Tragedy of Macbeth these are reinstated.  Stephen Root gives a funny turn as the porter and Joel Cohen seems to relish the macabre incantations of the Weird Sisters: “Finger of birth-strangled babe / Ditch-deliver’d by a drab / Liver of blaspheming Jew / Gall of goat and slips of yew…”  Well, he did start his movie career as an assistant editor on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981).


Still, the 2015 Macbeth looks lovely and it satisfies my craving for proper Scottish landscapes in a Macbeth movie.  Many of its outdoor scenes were shot on the Isle of Skye, although admittedly parts of it were also filmed in England, at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland and Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire.  Also visually striking is the sequence where Macbeth squares up to Macduff.  Their swordfight takes place against an infernal, almost hallucinogenic orange-red backdrop while Birnam Wood burns off-screen.  For yes, the scriptwriters cooked up – and ‘cook’ is the operative word – a novel way of bringing Birnam Wood to the castle on Dunsinane Hill.


For me, though, the best movie Macbeth is Roman Polanski’s version of it back in 1971, which had Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in the lead roles.  This made a big impression on me.  I was 15 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 artiness – mirrored the mix of emotions and hormones seething at the time in my teenaged self.  And no doubt I felt a connection with the film too 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.


© Playboy Productions / Columbia Pictures


Polanski’s Macbeth was disliked by many critics, upset by its violence and 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 murder of Macduff’s family was an attempt to replicate 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.”


Incidentally, the exteriors in Polanski’s Macbeth look rugged enough to be Scottish, but the film was actually shot elsewhere, in Wales (including Snowdonia) and north-eastern England.  And, yes, Northumberland’s Bamburgh Castle makes an appearance in this version too.


One other cinematic Macbeth I’ve seen 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 its eyes and shaking its ‘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.  It doesn’t help that he appears in an eccentric costume that, he grumbled later, made him look like the Statue of Liberty.


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 is shrill and hard to listen to and even Welles himself, during his more excitable moments, sounds like Scotty in the original series of Star Trek (1966-69).  Meanwhile, the Weird Sisters’ accents are so piercing they remind me of those advertisements that Scottish children’s entertainer and showbiz personality Molly Weir used to make for Flash, the household cleaning agent, back in the 1970s: “Flash cleans baths without scr-r-r-r-ratching!”


And on that topic…  While one of the play’s strengths is that it can be adapted to countless different settings and styles, I would one day like to see a truly Scottish film version of Macbeth, with authentic Scottish actors and accents as well as those brooding Scottish landscapes I’ve talked about.  You can’t claim, as you might have been able to in the past, that there aren’t enough bankable Scottish actors to draw audiences to it.  Not with the likes of Peter Capaldi, Robert Carlyle, Robbie Coltrane, Martin Compston, James Cosmo, Brian Cox, Kate Dickie, Lindsay Duncan, Karen Gillan, Shirley Henderson, Jack Lowden, James McAvoy, Kelly Macdonald, Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd, Bill Paterson, Dougray Scott, Ken Stott, David Tennant, etc., on the go nowadays.


Hell, I’d even pay money to see Gerald Butler as Macbeth.  Cawdor Has Fallen, anyone?


© Mercury Productions / Republic Pictures

Branagh’s Belfast


© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures


Kenneth Branagh has seemed the embodiment of classical, theatrical Englishness for a long time – at least since his 1989 film adaptation of Henry V, in which he raged “Cry ‘God for Harry, England and Saint George!’”  Meanwhile, over the years, I’ve enjoyed shocking people by pointing out to them that Branagh isn’t actually English.  He was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1960.  He and his family left there for England in 1969, shortly after the outbreak of the Troubles.  He ended up in Berkshire, where he dropped his Belfast accent and ‘acquired received pronunciation to avoid bullying.’  Thus began the plummy-voiced Branagh we know today.


In fact, Branagh’s early life wasn’t dissimilar to mine, for I was born and brought up in Northern Ireland until the age of 11, when my family moved to the town of Peebles, in the Borders region of Scotland.  I was a couple of years older than Branagh was at the time of moving and couldn’t shed my accent so easily – not that I needed to, because although my new classmates in Peebles sometimes took the piss out of the way I spoke, I was never bullied.  Come to think of it, acquiring ‘received pronunciation to avoid bullying’ probably wouldn’t have been a good policy at Peebles High School.  Folk would have picked on you more for sounding like a posh tosser.


Before Branagh made a name for himself as the star, director and adaptor of Henry V, I’d known of his Northern Irish connections because I’d seen him appear in a quartet of TV plays written by the Northern Irish dramatist Graham Reid.  These were Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983), A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984) and Lorna (1987), and were about the tribulations of a working-class Protestant family in Belfast, the Martins.  The Martins’ problems aren’t caused by the Troubles but by their own flawed, damaged and abrasive personalities.  The widowed father Norman (James Ellis) is an unrepentant hard man, incapable of showing his gentler feelings, while his eldest child and only son Billy (Branagh) is embittered about how Norman treated his late mother.  It’s left to the eldest daughter, the mild-mannered Lorna (Brid Brennan), to act as a surrogate mother to the family’s younger children.  During the plays, unexpected things happen – Norman mellows under the influence of a woman he forms a relationship with while working in England, Lorna develops some unexpected steel and Billy, dismayingly, begins to show some of the worst traits of his dad.  In the four plays Branagh had no problem readopting his old Belfast accent, so I was surprised when a few years later I went to the cinema and heard him speaking fluent Shakespeare in Henry V.


Branagh has revisited his Belfast roots with his latest movie Belfast, which was released in the USA last year and has just been released in Britain.  Inspired by Branagh’s experiences during the late 1960s, it tells the story of another working-class Protestant family, one less dysfunctional than the Martins in the Billy plays: a couple simply entitled ‘Ma’ (Catriona Balfe) and ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan), and their older son Will (Lewis McAskie) and younger son Buddy (Jude Hill).  Pa spends his working life in England and is considering moving his family over to live with him, something that doesn’t appeal to Ma and the boys.  “I know nothing else but Belfast,” she protests.  For one thing, they have strong family ties in the city, most notably Pa’s parents, the droll Pop (Ciaran Hines) and stern but kindly Granny (Judi Dench).  Then the Troubles erupt and Protestant paramilitaries led by local thug Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) chase the Catholic families out of their neighbourhood.  As the paramilitaries’ grip on the area tightens, Pa falls foul of Clanton and it becomes clear that, like it or not, his family will have to leave too.


© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures


This basic plot could have made Belfast a grim film, but it’s a funny, good-natured one because these events are seen through the eyes of little Buddy.  They have to compete for attention with all the things that matter to a normal nine-year-old boy – things ranging from pursuing your first love to getting initiated into the local kids’ gang, from making trips to the cinema to bonding with your granddad.


Belfast left me with mixed emotions.  On one hand, I found it annoyingly overstated in places.  On the other, I generally found it rather moving.  I’ll explain my conflicting reactions in detail, starting with the negative ones.


I have to admit that until now Henry V is the only film by Branagh that I’ve enjoyed.  I wasn’t impressed by his later adaptations of Shakespeare, like Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and I hated his version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994).  They seemed shrill and over-the-top in both their acting and their visuals.  Originally, I thought this was because Branagh didn’t have confidence in the original texts by Shakespeare and Shelley to capture the attention of modern film audiences.  He felt obliged to make them as bombastic as possible, pumping them up with the cinematic equivalent of steroids – operatic performances, hammy humour, fast-moving camerawork and so on.  Nowadays, though, I just think the problem is that Branagh, basically, is a theatrical man.  When you’re on a stage, performing for a live audience, everything has to be big – the voice projection, the gestures, the general drama – in order to be seen and heard. But what’s effective from a distant stage often seems unsubtle when it’s projected in fine detail onto a large movie screen.  And that’s the impression I sometimes got with Belfast.


In its plot machinations, visuals and soundtrack, there are some broad brushstrokes indeed.  You get heavy-handed pieces of comedy, such as when Buddy cheats at his homework in order to get placed at the desk beside the girl he fancies at school – their teacher positions the pupils from the front to the back of the classroom according to how good or bad their marks are, and Buddy’s sweetheart, the brightest kid in class, is right at the front.  (From a teaching point of view, wouldn’t it be sensible to have the less able kids at the front, so you can keep a close eye on them, and the smart ones at the back?)


Meanwhile, Branagh shoots the film in black and white but inserts colour at certain moments.  These are when Buddy’s family go to the cinema.  Although the auditorium is filmed in monochrome, what’s happening on the screen – action from Hammer’s One Million Years BC (1966) and the movie version of Roald Dahl’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) – appears in its original, glorious technicolour.  As a metaphor for how the cinema transports Buddy out of his black-and-white everyday existence and into the colourful dreamworld of the movies, this is pretty clunking.


© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures


By far the worst offender, though, is a scene where Pa confronts Billy Clanton on a street.  Clanton is holding his family at gunpoint and there’s a squad of British Army soldiers looking on, pointing weapons at everybody.  I know we’re meant to be viewing this through Buddy’s eyes.  But still, it seems crass and cheesy that at this deadly-serious moment Tex Ritter starts singing Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling from the classic 1952 western High Noon – which Buddy has recently watched on TV – on the soundtrack.  Billy Clanton, incidentally, was the name of one of the villainous Clanton Gang who took on the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday during the gunfight at the OK Corral, another touch that’s a bit too obvious.


All that aside, however, I have to say I enjoyed Belfast.  It’s nice to see a film about Northern Ireland that isn’t primarily about terrorism, extreme religion or extreme politics, and that focuses on believable, relatable people who are just trying to get on with their lives.  It also contains a lot of humour, something that’s usually in short supply in movies about Northern Ireland, even though I remember knowing many funny, witty characters when I lived there.  (Ciaran Hines’ genial, good-hearted Pop, who manages to be on Buddy’s wavelength without ever patronising him, initially seemed too good to be true – but again, I realised, I’d known several old guys like him during my childhood.)


Branagh conveys the idea that, as a kid in Northern Ireland, the popular culture of the time enthused you just as it enthused kids in more ‘normal’ societies, and influenced you as much as (if not more than) the riots and bombings that were happening not far from your doorstep. Thus, we see Buddy dressing up like a cast-member of Thunderbirds (1965-66), watching Star Trek (1966-69), playing with Subbuteo and James Bond toy cars, and reading the Marvel comic The Mighty Thor, which allows Branagh to sneakily reference the 2011 movie Thor, which he directed.  (I don’t know how easy it was to access Marvel comics in Belfast in 1969, especially as Marvel’s British subsidiary Marvel UK didn’t begin operating until 1972.  Still, I remember finding an American edition of The Avengers in Enniskillen in the early 1970s, so I guess it was possible.)


If there’s one thing I find unconvincing about the characters, it’s that the tribal symbols that existed in Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic communities, even in 1969 before the Troubles hardened people’s senses of identity, are absent.  There’s little said or shown about being British or Irish, about Union Jacks or tricolours, about the Orange Order or Gaelic Athletics Association.  Actually, at a few points Buddy’s relatives describe themselves as ‘Irish’ (“The Irish were born for leaving – otherwise, the rest of the world would have no pubs…”  “All the Irish need to survive is a phone, a Guinness and the sheet music to Danny Boy…”), although I expect most Belfast Protestants would call themselves ‘British’.  Compare this with a scene in Graham Reid’s A Coming to Terms for Billy when Norman Martin’s two youngest daughters discuss, unenthusiastically, the prospect of their dad taking them to England.  When one points out how disliked the Irish are in England, the other retorts, “We’re not Irish.  We’re Protestants!”


Still, Belfast definitely shows that Branagh’s heart is in the right place even if, occasionally, his plotting and filmmaking instincts aren’t.  The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous and his use of classic Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack – Warm Love, Jackie Wilson Said, Bright Side of the Road, Days Like This, Carrickfergus and, inevitably at the end, The Healing has Begun – is a reminder that however much Van the Man has degenerated these days into a curmudgeonly, whinging old fart who’d pick a fight with his own shadow, he did, once upon a time, record some wonderful music.


And, ultimately, Branagh shows that despite the terrible things that have gone on there, Northern Ireland is a place that exerts a powerful hold on your affections.  This is illustrated in the scene where Ma and Pa break the news to Buddy that they’re all going to leave Belfast and move to England.  Poor Buddy promptly bursts into tears.


I remember when my mother took me aside in 1976 and told me that we were going to move to Scotland.  I reacted in exactly the same way.


© Northern Ireland Screen / Focus Features / Universal Pictures