MACBETH. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Alex Kingston, Ray Fearon, John Shrapnel.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh. 145 minutes. Rated PG (adult themes).
This version of Macbeth belongs to the National Theatre Live series, plays being staged in theatres in England and photographed, film and television-like, for transmission to cinemas around the world. It gives an extra dimension to the play, by its editing, different angles, longshots and close-ups…, An opportunity to see the cast with great focus.
Venue for this version is a church in Manchester, auditions and rehearsals having taken place also in a church in London. This gives something of a sense of the sacred as well as a sense of evil in the brutality of the battles, in Macbeth’s ambition, in his being urged on by his wife, in the killing of Malcolm, in the destruction of Banquo, in the murder of Lady Macduff and her son, in the tyranny of Macbeth. And, of course, it is more profound in the sleepwalking scene for Lady Macbeth as well as for Macbeth’s final soliloquy.
This version is in no way modernised, but is set in its time, with costumes of the time as well as weapons. (One of the difficulties in the close-up of watching the performance is that, especially at the end, with Macbeth and Macduff battling, the choreography of the fight with swords is all too obvious as is the deliberate movement of the actors so that the fight seems staged rather than real.)
The film opens well with the three witches, standing in niches high on the wall of the church. They are made up in black, young but sinister. What follows immediately is a long staging of battle sequences so that Macbeth will be proclaimed Thane of Cawdor. King Duncan appears as do his sons, Malcolm seeming rather slight character, very young and inexperienced – although he gains in great strength and stature in the final battles and his becoming King.
Sometimes the action moves very swiftly, the killing of Duncan not long after the battles. It is here that we begin to appreciate the strong presence of Kenneth Branagh as Macbeth. Alex Kingston is quite strong as Lady Macbeth, though sometimes she is asked to perform in what seems a mechanical physical manner, moving around unnecessarily in her anxiety, and then quite stylised in the sleepwalking sequence and her arm motion. Macbeth, believing the prophecy of the witches, becomes more enmeshed in his ambition, to the killing of Banquo, to his deceiving Macduff.
The comedy of the Porter’s scene and the knocking at the door is handled quite humorously, not ignoring the bawdy implications of some of the porter’s words and actions.
For some time, Macbeth is absent from the stage, while Malcolm and Donalbain flee and are under suspicion of killing their father, with a confrontation between Macbeth and Banquo, with the visit of Macduff and the other soldiers. Then there is the scene with Lady Macduff and her son, and the shocking brutality of their deaths. When the news is given to Macduff, Ray Fearon gives quite an extraordinary display of grief and vocal lament. It is here that we can see that he will be the ultimate confronter of Macbeth.
As the play moves to an end, we have the sleepwalking scene with Lady Macbeth washing her hands trying to get rid of the damned spot. Then we have the final soliloquy, with Branagh’s interpretation of the familiar words, a tear coming from his eye, spittle falling from his lips, a choking uttering of ‘sound and fury’, followed by a very long pause after ‘signifying’ – and the strenuously quiet uttering of ‘nothing’.
The film makes much of Birnum Woods coming to Dunsinane, building up to the final fight, finally a long time given to the acclamation of Malcolm, his becoming King, and restoring order to a tragically disordered world.
After his performances as Henry V, Hamlet, and his other Shakespearean appearances as, for instance, Iago in Oliver Parker’s of Othello, and in the Branagh-directed films, Loves Labours Lost and As You Like It, it is essential to see his interpretation of Macbeth.
There are some interesting details in the presentation of the play in the church, candles lit, Lady Macbeth before the candles during the witches sequence, and a layer of mud along the aisle of the church especially for the initial battles, but remaining throughout the film, giving it an earthy feel.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
2 November 2013.