Macbeth with PTSD
By Lars Kaaber
Although several recent TV productions have been sumptuous enough to pass for big-screen ventures with festive cinema premieres, only four real feature films have ever been made of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Orson Welles came first with his heavily truncated 1948 version, Polanski made his almost-full-text film in 1971, and then the Australians took over: Geoffrey Wright with his modern-day Melbourne thriller from 2006, and now Justin Kurzel brings Macbeth back to the 11th century, as well as to the rolling green hills and rocky terrain of the Isle of Skye.
The most conspicuous aspect of Kurzel’s film is that this Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) suffers from a post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by the Pavlovian cocktail of the loss of his heir and the inhumanity of warfare. Even if the Highlanders of yore would have turned completely General Patton at the very thought of going down with stress, it nevertheless seems an obvious choice now, given our 21st-century focus on victims rather than victors. However, the protagonist’s emotional paralysis forces Fassbender to deliver his soliloquies in a droning monotone as though he were reading aloud from a shopping list. In the Banquet Scene, Lady Macbeth’s “why do you make such faces?” (3.4.66) seems unwarranted, for indeed, Fassbender’s PTSD-stricken thane never moves a single facial muscle. In the way of compensation, Kurzel suggests a potential for tenderness rarely seen in the thane: Fassbender finds time for a last dance with his deceased wife (Shakespeare’s Macbeth cannot even be bothered to view her corpse), and he kisses the brow of the messenger who brings the news of the rebel forces bearing down on Dunsinane – quite a step up from Ian McKellen’s 1978 thane who slashed the messenger’s face with a knife.
The idea of letting the root cause of the tragedy be the childlessness of the Macbeths is not new; it was the key element of Sigmund Freud’s 1916 analysis of the play, and clearly present in Simon Russell Beale’s portrayal at the Almeida in 2005 as well as suggested in Wright’s 2006 film and James McAvoy’s Macbeth at Trafalgar Studios in 2013, but Kurzel has carried the idea through with great consistency: we start at the funeral of Macbeth’s infant son, and Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) addresses her last soliloquy to the ghost of this lost child. Kurzel’s Macbeths are so desperate for a child that they even try to make one smack in the middle of 1.7 – but to no avail.
Every director doing Shakespeare seems compelled to come up with something never tried before, and Kurzel is no exception: Lady Macduff and her children are not merely murdered but publicly burnt at the stake in order to deter rebellious Scots (Fassbender’s Macbeth speaks his “Fly, false thanes” as he sets the family aflame), and Birnam Wood is not trimmed of branches but burnt to the ground; Macbeth still gets the point about the forest coming at him when the wind carries the ashes to his battlements.
Kurzel follows practically all other Macbeth films in not only showing the regicide but also letting King Duncan wake up briefly before he is stabbed, which adds to the horror of the scene but deprives our protagonist of his anguish at having killed a sleeping man. Kurzel’s “Inverness” is a camp of tents, so we have no knocking at the gate and hence no Porter. Donalbain is omitted as well, but interestingly, Kurzel lets the brotherless Malcolm (Jack Reynor) catch his father’s murderer literally red-handed on the scene of the crime. Macbeth then pre-empts his 2.3 speech “had I but died an hour before this chance” while moving menacingly close to the shocked pretender with the bloody murder weapon, upon which he repeats Banquo’s “live you or are you aught a man may question?” and bullies Malcolm into fighting or fleeing. As in Shakespeare, Malcolm wisely chooses the latter.
Another glaring departure from tradition is Kurzel’s portrayal of the Weird Sisters. In recent years, these purveyors of prophecies have been shown as everything from bag ladies to homicidal hospital nurses, and what to do with Shakespeare’s witches in production remains a constant source of botheration. As Stanley Wells so succinctly puts it, they are “all too often far more of a nightmare for the director than for the audience.” In the mid-18th century, the sober-minded Dr Johnson rued the fact that his beloved Bard meddled with witchcraft at all, and so the Age of Reason chose to present the metaphysical matter as good-natured fun: the Weird Sisters were made even weirder and turned into comical Christmas pantomime dames. This tradition prevailed until 1785 when John Philip Kemble performed an “unheimlich manoeuvre” and opted for a scarier manifestation of the supernatural sisters at the Drury Lane Theatre. Creepy witches have been customary ever since Kemble, but Kurzel dares to differ: his witches are sympathetic and seem to pity Macbeth for his part in a tragedy not of their making. They are neither funny nor frightening but sweet and solicitous, if somewhat droopy, and their prophecies are delivered as friendly warnings.
A final innovation in the 2015 film is that Macbeth is permitted to keep his head at the end of Act V, but since Fassbender was so elaborately decapitated in the sci-fi thriller Prometheus (2012), Kurzel probably did not have the heart to subject him to such again.
 Wells: “Backstage at ‘Macbeth,’” New York Times, 20 November 1994.