Thoughts on MACBETH (2015): Shakespearean Gothic


One of the year’s most buzzed-about films, a new incarnation of MACBETH, premiered in limited theaters this past Friday. Starring the genius pairing of Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, we see once again the tale of a Scottish king and his wife driven mad by greed and ambition. The striking style of this new adaptation warrant some discussion on Smucky’s Grave, because it gives us something that is often shunned in the world of Shakespeare: a taste of Gothic horror.


I’m not saying that the witches have hooked noses or that Banquo’s ghost pops out with a VFX-laden face. This is a classic type of horror, one that is usually just called “moodiness” to avoid the genre’s negative connotation. Director Justin Kurzel, who made a splash in 2011 with the disturbing “Snowtown,” infuses his interpretation with all the Gothic trappings: mist-swept moors, dark shadows, fiery chambers, and an impressive amount of blood. The witches haunt and the apparitions stalk; the madness creeps like an entity in its own right. The film drips with a sense of immense, almost cosmic, dread.


This is one of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies, and most violent. While “Hamlet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Richard III” all feature phantoms, they are easily read as psychological omens or metaphors, not supernatural manifestations. In “Macbeth,” however, the specters are joined by the Weird Sisters – who, while they can be staged to seem non-supernatural, are undeniably uncanny. Their prophecies are not only unsettling, but they come true. The Weird Sisters, combined with several disturbing ghosts and a general aura of doom, give “Macbeth” a distinctly Gothic air.


Kurzel plays his “Macbeth” straight. The setting, accents and costumes are all, as far as I know, period-accurate. But, in spite of the seriousness of his direction, the supernatural and uncanny elements have a strong presence. The spirits come to Macbeth in vivid and grotesque displays, and the witches are shown to have clear supernatural abilities. Lady Macbeth herself even witnesses them, along with a few other apparitions.

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Giving the supernatural a very real hold on the story allows Kurzel’s “Macbeth” to feel like a Gothic thriller. Adam Arkapaw’s incredible cinematography, similar to his work on the occult-centered “True Detective,” heightens this and brings a liminal type of fear to the entire film. It isn’t strictly horror, since isn’t meant to frighten, but it absolutely unsettles and disturbs. The filmmaking – brooding camerawork, uneasy set design, and a gut-churning score – bolster the story and cement this “Macbeth” as an exercise in Gothicism. Others might disagree, and some will undoubtedly be turned off by this brand of darkness, but it is a fascinating atmosphere nonetheless. And, overall, serves as one of the most interesting films of 2015.


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