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Fassbender vs. Finch: The ides for the new Macbeth movie


Will the latest - and it is very late - screen adaptation of Macbeth respect the bard, at last?

Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman take on the Macbeths, with Jon Finch (centre) in his 1971 portrayal

I’ve passed a fair bit of time this year re-acquainting myself with various screen adaptations of Macbeth, from Welles to Polanski to Thames Television’s famed 1976 RSC production, as well as Kurosawa’s Throne Of Blood and the 2010 TV movie with Patrick Stewart. There are more besides. It seemed a fairly random resurgence of interest at the beginning, a rekindled love affair with a favourite work.

Kenneth Branagh in his role as Macbeth (2013)But slowly it became apparent that, like a dark spell, Macbeth is in the air this year: Kenneth Branagh and Alex Kingston telecasting the ambitious Thane’s demise from Manchester; Alan Cumming taking on nearly all the principle roles on Broadway; James McAvoy returning to the part in London’s West End, having approached it rather more elliptically in the BBC’s 2005 re-imagining of the classic tragedy; and, some months back, the announcement that most interests me – that Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman are set to portray the regicidal couple in a new and apparently period-accurate film, directed by Justin Kurzel from a script by Todd Louiso and Jacob Koskoff.

The initial announcement contained the dreaded word ‘updated’. Fans of screen adaptations of the Scottish Play know that this means at least one of two things: inadequate budget and/or minimal faith in the target audience to appreciate the subtleties and quality of the original text. Follow-up announcements clarified that the movie will be ‘a visceral approach to the story including significant battle scenes’ (i.e. it will be sounding out the MPAA’s ratings board with potential graphic violence) - and, more importantly, that it will be set in the 11th century.

Jon Finch and Francesca Annis in Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation of 'Macbeth'At last. It has been 42 years since any organisation has put serious money into a gimmick-free Macbeth movie, the last being Playboy, which funded Roman Polanski’s 1971 adaptation featuring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis. In the light of 12 years of CGI-driven mania for magic, wizards and witches, culminating in the phenomenal success of Game Of Thrones, it is hard to believe just how long it has taken for ‘something wicked’ to come this way again. Since the trailing-off of Kenneth Branagh's Shakespeare movie adaptations, ‘Shakespearean’ has become more popular than Shakespeare's actual works.

It’s harsh to say that Macbeth-loving cinema enthusiasts have been fobbed off in the intervening period, but there is some truth to it. Since Joe MacBeth (1955) updated the plot to 1950s London ganglands, very few location units have been sent to the Scottish landscape on Macbeth’s behalf, or to other expensive landscapes that might stand in for the exterior environs of the play. Most Macbeth movies have instead followed the Joe Macbeth brand of gangster-themed revisionism, including Men of Respect (1991), Geoffrey Wright’s 2006 Australian-set version featuring Sam Worthington, and the Indian Maqbool (2003). Surprisingly, two adaptations have centred around restaurants: Scotland, Pa. (USA, 2001) and the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-told: Macbeth, featuring James McAvoy.

In 2010 BBC4 broadcast a film version of a Chichester-based revival featuring Patrick Stewart in the title role and using early 20th-century fascist motifs in its production design and approach to the work. It was well-done, but distractingly clever, as so many screen versions of Macbeth seem to be. For the fan of the play as written, it has been like trying to buy a classic Ford car and finding that they are available in every possible colour except black.

If you want a full-blooded cinematic Macbeth movie in English, set in the original period and using the original text (with inevitable edits), amazingly your choice is currently limited to Polanski’s adaptation or the 1948 Orson Welles version (the advent of which impeded Laurence Olivier from his own planned screen adaptation). If you want it in colour, or with any reasonable level of budget, it’s Polanski or bust.

"The play is not broken, and yet is endlessly being fixed by film-makers"

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn's acclaimed 1976 production of 'Macbeth'I’m curious as to why this is, since the source-material is a stage-bound play, and not some Tolkien-style tome requiring budget-draining sets, years of location work and worrying visual effects challenges. I think that partly it is because producers fear audiences will not understand how evergreen Macbeth is unless it is couched in modernity, or in the ‘borrowed robes’ of whatever epoch is currently in fashion; partly because the vivid and poetic language of Shakespeare requires unusual - if well-rewarded - concentration from the viewer, which is in itself an anomaly for a prospective movie; partly because the staging of the play as written permits both the minimalism of Trevor Nunn’s lauded 1976 production with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, and the epic accoutrements of Polanski’s film; but mostly because the themes of Macbeth are almost uniquely contemporary amongst Shakespeare’s work, and yet add an audience-pleasing character of conscience and tragedy to the sociopathy and ruthlessness on display - and so are naturally ‘modern’.

British productions have the least excuse to depart from the setting of the original play, to go off into wild tangents of production design or to attempt to graft on historical themes subsequent to the period of Macbeth, since we are ultimately the first proprietors of Shakespeare; Macbeth is set in our land and written in our language. We do not have Kurosawa’s remit to adapt the work to his nation, nor the licence that Geoffrey Rush took in not only couching his version in the 'gangster' genre but moving it to Melbourne. We also do not need to semaphore the play's current relevance; anyone unable to understand that the play deals with perennial themes will probably not be able to appreciate it under any circumstances. Neither has Macbeth been ‘respectfully’ filmed so many times, by any country, as to drive producers to new innovations in order to present it freshly. The play is not broken, and yet is endlessly being 'fixed' by film-makers.

Charles Dance as Tywin Lannister in HBO's 'Game Of Thrones'Ironically, it is the very trappings of Macbeth, so often discarded, that now give a new movie adaptation commercial appeal beyond the allure of its cast. The Lord Of The Rings movies made Game Of Thrones viable, and Game Of Thrones has given audiences an appetite for the lush and escapist mediaevalism of Shakespeare’s original work. In addition, over a decade of Harry Potter, Charmed, and sundry other screen wizards, witches and warlocks have summoned up the three witches on the heath once again. Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman are stepping into a well-prepared vehicle, not pushing it.

If the Lord Of The Rings/Hobbit cycles and Game Of Thrones have set up a conducive atmosphere for an atavistic tale full of castles, magic, murder and internal conflict, the groundwork was at least as well-laid when Roman Polanski created the most recent, uncompromising screen version of Macbeth in 1971, with Jon Finch as the murderous nobleman and Francesca Annis as his evil but over-reaching muse. Britain’s Hammer films had been proving Gothic horror a profitable pursuit since the company’s hugely successful Dracula and Frankenstein cycles began in the late 1950s, inspiring a new wave of atmospheric period horror - which exploitation king Roger Corman and the Amicus company, amongst others, enthusiastically adopted.

Polanski himself had already directed arguably the most atmospheric and dazzling of these movies in Dance Of The Vampires (a.k.a The Fearless Vampire Killers, 1967); it was certainly the best-funded, with lavish location work and breathtaking studio sets. If some were surprised that he would choose to take on a bloody tale of domestic bloodshed in the aftermath of the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by the Manson family in 1969, no-one could argue that he was unqualified to tell the story.

Jon Finch in Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation of 'Macbeth'In Jon Finch, Polanski was blessed with a talented young actor with one of the most expressive faces and compelling voices among his peers. Not all of the surrounding cast are able to approach Finch’s integrity and conviction in the part, and the very capable Francesca Annis must accommodate a rather over-edited Lady Macbeth. But these number among very few shortcomings of a film, and a central performance, which rewards repeated viewing, and benefits from its director’s unflinching honesty and unmatched sense of place and atmosphere. Without this genuine feeling for the Gothic, one might as well indeed re-set the play in an amusement arcade.

Of course, I am more than keen to relive this experience anew with Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman.

And yet, I am haunted, Banquo-esque, by the use of the word ‘updated’ in the original announcement regarding the Louiso/Koskoff-scripted project. To my knowledge, that adjective has not been withdrawn in subsequent announcements. If this new adaptation is set in the 11th century and uses some version of the original text, then what ‘innovative’ element has been introduced? Wooden iPhones? I hope I am wrong. And I would ask the writers, 'What will you do better than Shakespeare did...?'

Macbeth has indeed proved itself a cursed work for the cinema: ignored by Kenneth Branagh during his near-exhaustive series of cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, tormented by innovators who - in spite of their clear admiration for it - believe that it needs ‘something extra’, and unyielding even to the talents of Orson Welles in his prime. Only Roman Polanski has made an impression with a movie derived from this play, and that film simply told Shakespeare’s compelling story as well as its cast and crew could devise, with minimal editing, agendas or addition. This new version deserves a director as distinctive and talented, who can hallmark Macbeth without second-guessing the Bard.

The witches in 'Macbeth'


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