Tuesday, 11 October 2016

But is it Gothic? - Macbeth (2015) dir. Justin Kurzel

On Wednesday, Sheffield Gothic Reading Group gathered to watch and discuss Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation of Macbeth. 

Brace yourself for gratuitous Fassbendery
This brutal, stripped-back take on the Scottish play is emotionally demanding from start to finish; the film opens with the harrowing image of the Macbeths grieving at their infant’s funeral –something that is only inferred in Shakespeare’s text – before the viewer is transported to the stark, blood-drenched battlefield where Macbeth first meets the 'weird sisters'. Their 'hubble bubble' speech is abandoned in favor of soft-spoken incantations pronouncing Macbeth's rise to power. They are accompanied by children – presumably specters of other lost descendants in the frustrated line of inheritance – and their eerie stillness is heightened by the sublime Highlands that loom in the background of this purgatorial space.

Fassbender’s Thane is intense and carnal, while Lady Macbeth seems to inhabit the otherworldly, marginal realm of the ‘weird sisters’, most obviously when she delivers the ‘will these hands ne’er be clean?’ soliloquy (sans courtiers) to the ghost of her infant – a psychological manifestation of the grief she carries inside of her in place of an heir. This sequence wins no awards for subtlety, and yet it is effective in its simplicity. The absence of blood on her hands is, perhaps, more eloquent. The hushed tension that accompanies Marion Cotillard's careful, controlled delivery of Lady Macbeth final lines (which are bitterly, ironically pregnant in meaning) is possibly the most memorable moment of this production.

Notable in this scene is the lack of blood on her hands, though we do see it
on the face of the child she speaks to. 
The question at the heart of this particular GRG semester is: but is it gothic? In the case of Kurzel's Macbeth, this is difficult to answer definitively. His adaptation certainly contains elements of the Gothic, and yet, Kurzel shys away from portraying the witches as grotesque agents of evil, choosing instead to keep their dialogue minimal, their appearance muted and their intent ambiguous: their function is to deliver the prophecy, which they passively observe as the foretold events unfold and Macbeth's sanity unravels. 

The real horror of this film lies in Macbeth's brutal, ritualistic burning of Macduff's family, while Lady Macbeth looks on, silently traumatized by the escalation of her husband's ambition. It is this event that humanizes her, disrupts the power play and ultimately kills her off.

All in all, it is an appropriately bold and bloody reimagining of Shakespeare's play with the theme of childlessness at its core. Adam Arkapaw's cinematography is stunning and the use of color, particularly the palpable red haze in the final 'act', is strikingly memorable. Lighting is also significant – notice in the final sequence how golden sunlight spills into the castle, where before it had been increasingly dark and dismal. There are no bubbling cauldrons in sight, yet Kurzel manages to tap into the gothic elements of Shakespeare's play even as he downplays the supernatural excess.

*Sniff* We're not crying!
It's just raining on our faces

Carly 'wyrd sister' Stevenson is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield, researching Gothic and Romantic conceptualisations of mortality. She is a huge fan of Keats' bloody hand and Hiddleston in general. 

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