Back in 1990, Mel Gibson made a Hamlet movie. Watching it gave you this sense: No one involved in making this movie really cares about what the words mean.
Watching Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth movie makes you wonder: Does anyone care what words mean anymore? For most of the movie, actually, the actors don’t even bother talking. (So maybe they should have made a movie version of a play by a less-talented playwright?)
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has certain crucial narrative elements, which make it interesting. One of them is that Macbeth murders Duncan secretly. Lady Macbeth said that “had he not resembled my father as he slept, I had done’t.” The new thane of Cawdor, in a haze of ambition stirred up by his wife’s malice, secretly kills his fatherly benefactor. Off stage.
All the dramatic tension in the first part of the play turns on the secrecy of this murder. The audience simultaneously occupies two worlds: The dark, secret world in which the heath witches have promised Macbeth the kingdom, where Lady Macbeth swears that
The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements. (I.v)
The audience also occupies the outer world of the Scottish court, where Duncan has named his son Malcolm his heir. That Banquo, like the audience, has access to both these worlds–that he knows the secret of the witches–makes him dangerous to Macbeth.
In Fassbender’s nightmare of a movie, there are no secrets. Nothing hidden that awaits revelation. Malcolm suddenly stands at the bedside of his murdered father, catching Macbeth literally red-handed.
Where could the drama of the play go from there? Short answer: Nowhere, fast.
All the dramatic tension of the second part of the play turns on the fact that Macbeth has slipped deeper into malice even than his wife. He keeps secrets from her. Eventually the Lady’s conscience takes vengeance on her, while her husband just keeps piling up secret homicides.
But, like I said, Fassbender’s Macbeth has no secrets. So, in the movie, Macbeth publicly burns the wife and children of Fife at the stake. By this point, though, we have long since given up on any of this movie making any sense.
Now, Shakespeare has an interlude at the end of Act IV of his script, which even self-respecting Shakespeare troupes often cut. Macduff and Malcolm, exiled in England, debate the latter’s worthiness to return and seek the Scottish throne.
Malcolm, trying to gauge Macduff’s motives in coming to England, paints himself as a worse villain even than Macbeth. Macduff stands ready to excuse royal lust and avarice, within limits. Then Malcolm pushes Macduff to the breaking point: I have no piety or love of justice, either! Macduff explodes with anger at the idea that no worthy king for Scotland can be found.
Malcolm then ends the charade and explains how he only intended to test Macduff. Malcom’s soul, in fact, lives free of lust and avarice. He has his father Duncan’s virtues.
In other words: Good and evil matter. Scotland may have a murderous, usurping tyrant for the moment. But chaos does not rule. Outside the bewitched interior world of Macbeth and his wife, good order and honesty continue.
When Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane, the green leaves of the tree branches used as cover by the approaching army serve as an insignia of goodness and justice. Macbeth’s is a world of burning sulphur. But outside his twisted, compromised mind, the sun shines.
In Fassbender’s movie, Burnham Wood comes to Dunsinane as burning ash. There is no good world in this movie. Which makes the breathless, relentless evil that fills it oppressively boring.
Macbeth, the play, offers timeless human insight. Macbeth, the movie, pummels the audience to no purpose. Even if I myself fell into the depths of malice into which Macbeth falls, I would not wish the watching of Fassbender’s Macbeth on my worst enemy.