I don’t remember if I read Macbeth before studying it for GCSEs. I read a lot of other Shakeys but it was definitely age 14 or 15 I fell hard for the Scottish play – and it’s still my favourite. School destroys the Bard for so many people, which is a massive shame. Luckily I had an amazing GSCE teacher, Mrs Dowse, one of those teachers you remember for the right reasons.
This was mid-90’s. Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet landed like a gift for English teachers trying to get their class to engage – boys the girls wanted and the boys wanted to be, toting guns, boasting an immense soundtrack, fast cars and those angel wings that inspired a thousand fancy dress costumes – suddenly everyone loved Shakespeare. Whether Mrs Dowse had seen R+J I am not sure but she did find a production called Macbeth on the Estate. Filmed on a Birmingham housing estate combining real people and actors – the war was for dealer territory, Ray Winstone was Duncan the drug king and everyone had a (more passable than Peaky Blinders) Brummy accent. I loved it, we all did. It opens with a load of young men kicking in a door and smashing people’s heads in with baseball bats – YEAH! Mrs Dowse pausing the video after James Frain’s delivery of one of Macbeth’s final speeches and turning slowly with a tear in her eye to say ‘That was one of the best renditions of the Tomorrow speech I have ever heard’ stayed with me. My friend used to mimic that line at me and I pretended it was a ‘laugh at Teach’ moment, but really I got it.
Macbeth on the Estate popped up on YouTube* at some point recently and as I revisited it I realised a lot of it doesn’t work. But still the Tomorrow speech is immense, blunt and brummy – Frain spitting the words over Lady M’s corpse and eyeballing the camera to deliver the final (and one of my favourite) lines: ‘Blow, wind! Come, wrack! At least we’ll die with harness on our back.’ The other scene that was still excellent was mad Lady M and the damned spot. Susan Vidler’s estate savvy, scrunchie and cycling short wearing Lady M hunched over her kitchen sink in the bleak little flat – wonderful stuff. All these years, I’ve banged on about Macbeth on the Estate at people but I’ve also waited for another Macbeth to get all the other bits right for me and when I heard about the Fassbender and Cotillard Cannes-ten-minute-standing-ovation Macbeth – I was VERY excited. Spoilers coming.
Last night I went to see it – I’d heard that the pace was lacking, but I went in open minded. And you know what? I loved it. By putting Macbeth back into a medieval setting, filming in bleak, cold and brutally beautiful Scotland, all the bits that didn’t work on the Estate – because with a modern setting we need motive and backstory and modern emotional responses – clicked.
Kurzel’s Macbeth was like being in a dream, familiar yet unnerving all at once. Combining period accurate misty heather, battle scenes, oodles of blood and bruises (poor continuity person) with some very modern editing, slow motion and horror film-like flickering cuts and zooms, the result was eerie and gripping as hell. Fassbender was perfect as Macbeth, playing it close and guarded, a damaged soldier driven by pure, evil ambition with just a dash of madness. I loved him and Cotillard together -they were totally believable as the Macbeths – scheming, seductive and terrifying. They beefed up Lady M’s screentime and the decision to have Macbeth burn the Macduff family entirely openly was inspired (What, all my pretty chickens and their dam at one fell swoop?). There’s no grey with Macbeth – he EVIL. It worked perfectly in the setting (we’d already seen Duncan carry out his own execution of the original Cawdor) and gave Lady M the reason for her descent into madness. Sean Harris as Macduff, the physical hardness with ‘did someone nearly slice your head off’ scar and stoically Scots glare only served to emphasise his emotional moments, from throwing up after finding Duncan’s mutilated corpse to his hill top delivery of grief, ‘first I must feel it like a man‘ – he was devastatingly brilliant.
The only two bits it didn’t nail for me were (unsurprisingly cos Estate Macbeth got me young) were the Tomorrow speech – just say it, don’t dance around with Lady M’s corpse dude not cool – and Lady M’s ‘out damned spot’ speech. Though Cotillard’s return to the ‘scene of the crime’ was visually stunning, snow drifting in and those eyes filling with tears, for me you can’t talk about handwashing and hands that smell of blood, without using your hands. Vidler’s Kappa Slapper Lady M wins it for me.
There was a lack of pace at times and you could argue it was all bleak with no lighter moments (surely some chuckles post witches for Banquo and M were missing), but it was fully committed and if you just relax and embrace the slow intensity, it’s wonderful, stirring cinema at it’s best. And it’s the first time they’ve managed to pull of the Birnam wood to Dunsinane – I wanted to cheer – bloody brilliant – set it on FIRE. YES. And that final red, orange ash filled fight scene I would watch on a loop.
All hail, Macbeth!
*If you fancy watching Macbeth on the Estate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UV25yBl9VkM&list=PLC79AF51422D5BDB7