‘Vaulting Ambition’: Film Review, Macbeth (2015)

Unfortunately, I’ve never been one to describe myself as a film critic or movie buff. My favourite films are ideally animated by Disney and/or complete with a complicated romantic entanglement which concludes with a happy ending. I always tried my best to avoid Shakespeare at university, not because I didn’t like it, but because I cringed away from being that stereotypical English Lit student reading Hamlet somewhere in the corner, and because I never really thought I was up to it. Ironically I did end up doing a whole module about the different versions of Renaissance texts and in doing so became that crazy girl in the corner reading all three versions of Hamlet, but that’s besides the point. Despite my so-called Shakespeare aversion, I have always been a huge fan of Macbeth (and not just because it has my name in the title, I promise). I think everybody has that one Shakespeare play which speaks directly to them, tackling the themes they find most compelling and important. Macbeth is that to me because it poses a very legitimate and crucial question:

How far will you go to get what you want?

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Justin Kurzel’s latest adaptation of the Shakespeare classic is dark, cinematic, and surprisingly similar to Game of Thrones it has to be pointed out (burning children at the stake? Check. Brutal and bloody warfare? Check. Panning shots of harsh northern landscape? Check. I think we’ll have to give first dibs to Shakespeare on this one though, sorry George RR Martin.) I came to the film with fresh eyes and a year and a half long sabbatical from anything Shakespearian, and I found myself pleasantly surprised with what it brought to my favourite Shakespeare play. 

A picture postcard advertisement for the bleak beauty of Scotland, Macbeth utilises a stark and unique colour pallet from the start. Blood red is laid clashing alongside the haunting and cool tones of the foggy mountains and moors, and eerie freeze frames in battles and key moments create an almost tapestry-like effect. This is art and history simultaneously, and Kurzel infuses both beautifully alongside the literariness of the play’s lines which, by the way, sound so much better/more incomprehensible in thick Scottish accents.

Fassbender is great as Macbeth, he really is. He injects just the right amount of grit and determination along with his moments of madness and grief, and thinking about it, I’m not sure there are many other actors who could have done such a good job. Marion Cotillard is striking as Lady Macbeth, although I have to question why they chose a French actress to play such a key Scottish role. I can think of British actresses who could have done an equally good job, and an even better Scottish accent, but that’s probably because I’m not a casting agent and just a bit picky when it comes to British accents. Blame Anne Hathaway, she scarred me forever.

Watching the film brought back to life one of my favourite Shakespeare quotes which is, of course, especially pertinent to Macbeth and his journey of self-destruction:

“vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself.”

Macbeth is about many things: fate, prophecy, leadership, but first and foremost it will always be about ambition. Equally pushed and tempted by both fate and his over-ambitious wife, Macbeth allows himself to become swept up in the power of desire, of where he could see himself, of what he could see himself becoming. And yet even when the prophecy is fulfilled and he has become King, the nature of the beast is that he can never be sure, never be certain, (“To be thus is nothing. But to be safely thus”), and he manages to convince himself that he must keep killing, keep murdering, keep pursuing his own version of fate, in order to maintain his ambition, and to protect how far it has already brought him.

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The film remains mostly faithful to the play, but there is one bit at the end I would like to quickly talk about before I finish boring you all to tears. (I bet you don’t even like Shakespeare, you just came here for Fassbender didn’t you.) At the beginning, the three witches address Macbeth as “King of Scotland”, sparking off Macbeth’s fated journey, but they also tell Banquo that his children will be future kings. The very last shots of Kurzel’s film are Banquo’s son, Fleance, passing over a dead Macbeth to retrieve his sword, and the newly-crowned Malcolm at the same moment running out of his castle and, presumably, chasing a now-running Fleance.

Something about this last scene struck me, and I think it’s because I’d never realised it before. With Malcolm now pursuing Fleance, who was promised the Scottish crown by the witches, so begins another cycle whereby more blood must be shed, more men murdered, and more means met in order to fulfil/fight against the prophecy. It was something that had never occurred to me before, and I loved the film for pointing out the cyclical nature of power and the doomed attempts of those who try to achieve it.

Maybe it’s because I watched Whiplash the other day and apparently I like to draw comparisons between the only two films I’ve watched this month, but that too discusses themes of ambition and how far it can take you. Maybe it’s because I feel a powerful sense of ambition within myself at times that too could be described as ‘vaulting. Or maybe it’s just because Kurzel’s version is a really good and interesting adaptation. Whatever it is, I’ve had Macbeth on my mind for the last couple of days, and with that, I can’t help but wonder just how far I would go to get what I want. I mean, I won’t murder anybody or anything, nor burn young women and children at stakes, but if three witches turn up tomorrow and tell me they’ll publish my book and Michael Fassbender will be my literary agent, I’m afraid I can’t make any promises.

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