Macbeth

By Tim McEown

Mailed on January 04, 2016


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Dear Adam Arkapaw
Cinematographer

Dear Adam,

“Say from whence

You owe this strange intelligence…”

~Macbeth, Act I, Scene III

Your adaptation of Macbeth is a bold venture in a variety of ways. It is ruthless in what it omits from the source material, much of the dialogue is delivered in a naturalistic rather than a theatrical way—and the battle scenes are so audacious they would have overwhelmed a lesser work. But the most successful—and ballsiest—risk you took with the narrative was to privilege the visuals over the language. Even in the face of Shakespeare’s transcendent genius.

Your Macbeth successfully does what so few other film adaptations of Shakespeare dare to do: let the story spool out as a visual experience, rather than falling into the trap of simply filming an amped up stage production. This success is, in large part, attributable to how effectively you manage the transitions from quiet melancholy to ethereal battlefields, and then into the moments of vicious, ugly betrayal that are the twisted heart of this story. So much of that work is done by the choices you and your director Justin Kurzel make, and the way those choices subtly underline the larger themes that run throughout Macbeth.

It certainly doesn’t hurt your case that you had two of the more formidable actors of our time—Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard—to play Lord and Lady Macbeth. Each has a distinctive and riveting physical presence that transmits much of the work’s subtext without requiring them to utter a word. The endless tension between guilt, madness, ambition and duty is present whenever they’re onscreen. They embody these themes in the tilt of a head, an unbroken stare, the endless, restless motion of Fassbender’s doomed Thane. When Fassbender utters, “full of scorpions is my mind” you can _see the madness seething—in a way you never could in a live performance.

Despite all of this, it is undeniably Shakespeare’s Macbeth that fills the screen. This film feels so true to the intention of the work, even as it takes liberty with its form, that more than once I was moved to tears by the sheer passion of it all.

Since Macbeth is constructed of equal parts visual bombast and subtle performance, it is a film that absolutely requires the cooperation of the audience. It expects a particular kind of attention—because so much of the work is done by the visuals. When Macbeth assassinates his King, plunging the dagger again and again and again, until the man’s chest is nothing but a tatters of blood and cloth, Macbeth is not just committing regicide, he is also killing the better angels of his own nature. While this is a narrative pivot where madness and doom become the only path Macbeth can follow, it is also a visual shorthand for his complicated psychological journey from loyal Thane to ruthless Kingslayer.

The marriage between what Shakespeare wrote and what you managed to build onscreen is profound. It is rare that I‘ve had an experience with a piece of art that felt so fulfilling and complete. Macbeth is something I will watch and rewatch in the same way I do with films like Winter’s Bone or Throne of Blood or even Children of Men—each being works that are completely true to themselves and utterly robust in their confidence of that truth.

Sincerely,

Tim

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