Cinema has been kind to The Scottish Play. Orson Welles’ 1948 iteration impressed with its potent expressionist imagery despite its meager budget and behind the scenes woes. The American literary critic Harold Bloom called Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 adaptation “the most successful film version of Macbeth.” And Roman Polanski’s 1971 version stands out as a piece of powerful cinema where the film transcends the bard’s original text, with its lingering violence, powerful final image and an acute sense that the director is bearing his soul through the titular character.
Onto the bloody screen enters Justin Kurzel’s 2015 adaptation in which nature and war are at the heart of this artful retelling. The former could almost be considered a character as it lingers and watches our characters do their grisly work. Whether it is the hissing flames that reflect in the eyes of Macbeth before he commits murder. Or the gentle snow that falls upon Lady Macbeth’s brow when she reflects on the bloodshed of the past.
The most compelling illustration of nature and its place in this film is when it harmonises with Shakespeare’s words. The line, “And now a wood comes toward Dunsinane”, resonates with chilling new clarity as Macbeth breathes in the ashy air of the burned forest around his castle. The evocative colours of brown and orange permeate this scene and reflect Macbeth’s blood-soaked reign in a fresh and terrifying manner. Additionally, the camera and how it captures shots of still icy mountains, torn down tents and tall church spires are as dynamic as the famous soliloquies.
War is the other central fascination of the picture as Macbeth’s tragic fall comes across as the result of the effects of war more than ambition and prophecy. For example, in the aftermath of Ducan’s death, Macbeth relishes the murder, even going so far as lying with the dead king. This interpretation of Macbeth paints the picture of a man who can’t stop his compulsion for killing. The reason of which firstly comes from war, the second is the grief over his children’s death. In an interesting new facet, Macbeth has two children, one of which dies in battle and the other from an unknown reason. This choice results in its some fascinating new details in the story.
The witches become constant figures of grief as you see Macbeth’s dead daughter with them. Macbeth’s son appears in the story as the person holding the dagger in the famous soliloquy of the object. All these figures appear at some point on the battlefield, which speaks to the importance of war in this retelling. Whether it is the weird sisters watching Macbeth in the battle scenes. Or Macbeth having a vision of his dead son. Or the title character seeing his comrades bathed in a golden light when he visits the witches for the final time.
All these additions result in a Macbeth, who is haunted from the start. This suggests that the conditions for him becoming murderous emerge from a need to keep committing violence because of a lack of heirs and a war driven nature. The most enduring shots of this interpretation come from its ending ones that depict Malcolm and Banquo’s son, Fleance picking up swords in different locations. Much like Polanski’s last shot, they suggest an eternal cycle. In that film, it was the nature of ambition and violence within man. In this picture, it is the inevitability of war and consequences that ensue.