Film Review: Macbeth

“Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires.” ~ William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Macbeth

This latest film joins the ranks of earlier TV and movie adaptations, providing a realistic, gritty and modern version with a dark touch of the supernatural, which is bound to be popular.

It’s probably no coincidence that Shakespeare penned The Tragedy of Macbeth during the reign of King James I of England (formerly King James VI of Scotland), between 1599 and 1606 with characters based on real people from Holinshead’s Chronicles.

Whilst not exactly a verse for verse reproduction (as films of plays rarely are), I think it’s true to the spirit of the play. A look behind the scenes with director Justin Kerzel and his two stars:

This Film 4 production of Macbeth is an assault on the senses. It’s not just that what you see is so brutal and visceral; it’s the intensity with which it is portrayed that is so startling.

Michael Fassbender as the tortured Macbeth and Marion Cotillard as his scheming wife are in a league of their own. Worthy of mention is David Thewlis as the King of Scotland, Sean Harris as Macduff (the Thane of Fife) and Paddy Considine as Banquo.

The combination of acting talent, amazing costumes, stunning locations, a pared back text, powerful, evocative soundtrack and visual artistry make it a worthwhile watch.

To sum up Macbeth the film in a few words, I would say it’s totally mesmerising, disturbing and compelling.


The cinematography is as epic as the on-location highland scenery of Scotland; misty mountain moors place you at the burial of the Macbeths’ child at the start. It is cold, windy and inhospitable.

Tragedy starts it all off, and tragedy certainly ends it.

We see Macbeth (the Thane of Glamis), with Banquo and his depleted army by his side, fighting for King Duncan of Scotland against Macdonwald and his group of Scottish, Irish and Nordic rebels.

Every gory detail, every scream and pained expression is framed in slow motion; including the urgency of Macbeth to reach the traitors. In the midst of the bloody battle he sees through the mayhem and smoke, three female figures and one child. They are standing where Macdonwald was. The moment seems to last forever. Then the fighting proceeds at full pelt again and Macbeth eventually emerges weary but victorious.

Theodore Chasseriau - Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches.

Theodore Chasseriau – Macbeth and Banquo meet the witches.

As he and Banquo respectfully place their dead into a pit the witches approach them. It is the fateful moment when you just know that double double, toil and trouble will haunt Macbeth ’till the end of his days. The sinister prophecy is spoken by the ‘weird sisters’. They finish with, “All hail Macbeth,” before disappearing back into the fog.

At this point echoes of “all hail Caesar” are in my mind, and you know it’s not going to end well.

It is with these words playing in his mind that he returns to his wife and village. Soon after he is rewarded by a grateful King Duncan who bestows on him the title Thane of Cawdor as foretold by the witches, and his thoughts turns to the crown.

The spellbinding 1979 performance by Judi Dench of Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy after she hears of Macbeth’s strange and prophetic visitation:

Macbeth is persuaded by Lady Macbeth (whilst they engage in carnal pleasure), to do away with Duncan as he sleeps in his tent at their home. Sexually sated and consumed with a deadly purpose, Macbeth walks menacingly towards the king’s tent.

Torrential rain is falling and while Duncan’s body guards lay slumped in a wine induced stupor he commits regicide in a frenzied dagger attack.  Lady Macbeth later places the bloody daggers into the hands of the sleeping guards to deflect blame from her husband. Gruesome as this murder is, it’s not the most horrifying scene in the film.

The rain may have washed the king’s blood off his hands, but it’s now ingrained in his soul, the poison has already begun its inevitable journey to Macbeth’s heart. You see the glint of unbridled ambition burn in his eyes. The acting is just chilling.

A little water has not ‘cleared them of their deeds’ as Lady Macbeth suggested it would in the aftermath of Duncan’s murder, in an attempt to assuage them of guilt.

Once the ‘gold round’ is on his head Macbeth slides further into paranoia and hunger for total power. You see that he is cursed as he ponders the witches words, the fact that he has no heir and has won the royal line for Banquo’s seed. Macbeth tells his wife whilst pointing a dagger at her empty womb, “Full of scorpions is my mind”.

And so his henchmen hunt down and strike down the unfortunate loyal Banquo in an act of utter betrayal that is only slightly lessened by the fact that his son, Fleance escapes the steel blade of his father’s slayers. Distasteful as it is, it’s still not the worst scene in the film.

The weirdness of the banquet seals Macbeth’s fate. The sight of his murdered friend Banquo at the table confounds and confuses Macbeth, now racked with guilt over his treachery, causing him to react strangely and lose face among his people. Macduff begins to smell a rat and leaves.

Another visit to the witches leaves Macbeth confident of his victory, killing off his last remnants of kindness and moral rectitude. He is now dead inside and willing to stop at nothing to crush his enemies.

I’m not sure I can articulate the horrors that Macbeth goes on to commit; the grief etched on Marion Cotillard’s face show us his wife cannot believe that he is capable of it either. The latter part of the movie has some pretty haunting scenes, which prove too much even for Lady Macbeth.

In her sleep she is dreaming she’s back at the chapel of their old village with her dead child. She is tired of the power struggles and the monster her husband has become, a path that she herself pushed him onto. It makes for a poignant scene.

Here are her words taken from the text in what is Act 5 Scene 1 of Shakespeare’s play:

Yet here’s a spot.

Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky! – Fie, my lord, fie! A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him.

The thane of Fife had a wife: where is she now? – What, will these hands ne’er be clean? – No more o’that, my lord, no more o’ that: you mar all with this starting.

Here’s the smell of the blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!

Wash your hands, put on your nightgown; look not so pale. – I tell you yet again, Banquo’s buried; he cannot come o

To bed, to bed!

There’s knocking at the gate: come, come, come, come, give me your hand. What’s done cannot be undone. – To bed, to bed, to bed!

And thus, she never wakes up. Meanwhile an inconsolable Macduff and Malcolm (the elder son of Duncan), return from England to Dunsinane to wreak revenge on Macbeth for their murdered loved ones.

Fire now rages beyond the walls of Dunsinane and Macbeth goes defiant into battle once more. In one on one combat he has his sword at Macduff’s throat – believing he cannot be harmed by a man born to a woman – when Macduff splutters that he was untimely ripped from his mother’s belly.

Macbeth seems only now to fully comprehend the evil empty promises that the witches have instilled in his mind and the hatred he felt for Macduff evaporates into the red smoke that fills the screen, as the camera hones in on their darkened bodies and grubby, agonised faces, the outer sign of their troubled souls.

Macbeth then allows Macduff to strike him down on the battlefield. The final scene shows a courageous Fleance pulling Macbeth’s sword from the scorched earth and running into the distance like a child warrior.

This film is a very human tale of seduction, deceit, quest for political power and betrayal. My sympathy for Macbeth only returned at the very end; a broken, pitiable figure when he recognises the tyrant he has become and what it has cost him.

It’s gut churning action and powerful soliloquys from beginning to end. All in all, a gripping film, even if the turn of events are hard to watch at times. I emerged from the cinema into a cold rainy night somewhat traumatised!

A must see for Shakespeare connoisseurs and Bardolaters alike…

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.” ~ William Shakespeare, Macbeth

The Muses of Music – Composers and the Works Inspired by Literary Greats

The legendary words of Marcus Aurelius most definitely apply to the arts. “What we do now echoes on to eternity.”

John Faed - Shakespeare and his contemporaries 1851

John Faed – Shakespeare and his contemporaries 1851

It’s only natural that the early composers served as inspiration for the musical creators that followed, but in this post I thought I would explore the rich cultural legacy that poets, playwrights and literary greats have inspired in composers, choreographers and purveyors of the arts. Of course, writers haven’t just provided mythical fodder for music, they have also been prolific in the imaginations of artists and painters through the ages in the world of art. However, today I’m going to stick to music.

I’ll be exploring opera, ballet and instrumental works. There are a range of writers who have provided creative juice to our musical geniuses, but Shakespeare due to his incredible literary legacy, features more than most.  There are ‘Bardolaters’ aplenty to investigate!

As opera is musical storytelling it is the perfect medium for literary adaptations, and I believe it’s on the stage of the vocal arena where Shakespeare’s plays have become a most popular muse to composers and librettists of the last two hundred or so years.

Dicksee - Romeo and Juliet on the balconyIn many ways, the music that came after the words has cemented the iconic status of certain plays in our hearts and minds, ensuring they remain at the forefront of popular culture, as the music transports us into these fictional worlds and helps us transpose them into our own lives.

Perhaps Shakespeare was hinting at musical imitation when he penned the immortal phrase: If music be the food of love, play on…

The Italian operatic composers Gioachino Rossini and Guiseppe Verdi both wrote operas based on Othello, and here is an aria each from each composer:

Rossini – Otello ‘Assisa a pie d’un salice’ sung by Cecilia Bartoli as Desdemona:

Verdi – Otello ‘Willow Song’ with diva Maria Callas as Desdemona:

A powerful aria sung by Piero Cappuccilli from Verdi’s opera Macbeth ‘Perfidi! … Pietà rispetto amore’:

Prokofiev’s immortal ballet Romeo and Juliet was first performed in Brno in the Czech Republic on 30th December 1938, but was then revised and shown again at the Kirov Ballet in January 1940. Since then it has become a firm favourite in both ballet and instrumental repertoire with choreographers such as Frederick Ashton, Sir Kenneth Macmillan, Rudolf Nureyev, Yuri Grigorovich and Peter Martins amongst others, who all had their own stylistic take on this most tragic and classic of love stories. Prokofiev also arranged his ballet music for solo piano.

Montagues and Capulets (also known as Dance of the Knights) Act I, Scene II:

Sticking with Romeo and Juliet I couldn’t leave out Tchaikovsky’s orchestral masterpiece, the ‘Fantasy Overture to Romeo and Juliet’. Here is Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony Orchestra with a wonderfully evocative performance that always pulls on my heart strings:

Tchaikvosky also wrote instrumental music for The Tempest and Hamlet. But it is the music of little known Thomas Linley the Younger (1756 – 1758) who was childhood friends with Mozart and later became known as the ‘English Mozart’ that I feel best encapsulates the theme of ‘The Tempest’.

Chamber orchestra Pratum Integrum and vocal ensemble Intrada perform “Arise! ye spirits of the storm” directed by Ekaterina Antonenko:

In the nineteenth century Felix Mendelssohn, a child prodigy, virtuosic pianist and violinist, turned composer and conductor, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and wrote the overture at the age of 17 in 1826, followed by the incidental music for the play in 1842.

Kurt Masur and the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig do a great job of bringing this spritely comedy to life!


“Romanticism is the art of presenting to people the literary works which …can afford them the greatest pleasure. Classicism presents them with works which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grand parents.” ~ Stendhal

Hector_Berlioz by Gustave CourbetBorn into the world just before Napoleon was crowned Emperor , the French composer Hector Berlioz grew up with a love of literature, and was greatly inspired by the works of Virgil,  Shakespeare, Goethe, Byron, Thomas Moore, Sir Walter Scott and French poet Theophile Gautier. His musical God was Beethoven, (which is hardly surprising as Beethoven was the catalyst for the Romantic era of music), with his non-conformist and rebellious nature that dared to breach the traditional classical rules about structure and content; his passion for the notions of freedom and brotherhood, and above all else for his art, no matter what was deemed popular and the ‘done thing’ at the time. With such a combination of dramatic and artistic love it’s no wonder Berlioz wrote many works inspired by the Bard and the Romantics!

Dispensing with a career in medicine he focused on his music, and as an incomparable romantic he wrote the choral symphony Roméo et Juliette, after seeing Harriet Smithson star as Ophelia when a London Theatre Company was performing Hamlet in Paris. The cream of the Paris literati were also in the audience that night; Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny, Alfred de Musset and the painter Delacroix.

JW Waterhouse - Shakespeare - Miranda-The TempestThis music was followed with an Overture to King Lear, and also to the Tempest, which, as legend would have it, on the night of the performance in Paris the worst storm for fifty years was unleashing its wrath over the city and hardly anyone ventured out. Franz Liszt did attend however, and was later to transcribe his Symphonie Fantastique for the piano. The two became great friends.

Here is an excerpt from his last work, the comic opera Béatrice & Bénédict, loosely based on Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ the aria ‘Nuit paisible’:

Debussy had a thing about gothic writer Edgar Allan Poe, Wagner’s operatic output is steeped in mythical legend, and composer and piano virtuoso, Franz Liszt wrote the ‘Dante Symphony’ and we can also thank him for creating a new art form: the symphonic poem. Here is his dramatic ‘Hamlet’ with Bernard Haitink and the LPO:

Generations of composers have written work from Shakespeare, I’d love to include their music but there’s only so much room! Worthy of mention are Henry Purcell, Shostakovich, Smetana, Sibelius, Poulenc, Debussy, Elgar, von Weber Ambroise Thomas, William Walton and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The English poet and writer John Milton who was himself a keen musician and composer, inspired composers such as Joseph Haydn, who’s oratorio ‘The Creation’ (with the libretto by Baron van Swieten), was based on his epic poem Paradise Lost, and an opera was written on it by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. More recently contemporary composer Eric Whitacre wrote an ‘Electronica Opera’ entitled Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings inspired by Milton’s text.

A section of Miguel de Cervantes’ timeless chivalric novel ‘Don Quixote’ has been a firm favourite in the dance community, having been adapted and featured over the years as a ballet. The music was written by Ludwig Minkus with the original choreography by Marius Petipa, and it was first performed in 1869.

An excerpt from The Bolshoi Ballet with Maria Alexandrova & Mihail Lobuhin:

More recent literary works and novels have also been turned into ballets, such as the classic Alice In Wonderland by C.S. Lewis, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, As I Lay Dying by William Fualkner, Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and even Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Who would have thought that John Steinbeck’s iconic working class tale Of Mice and Men could be done? I wonder what George Orwell would have made of 1984 on the stage at Covent Garden in 2005, a much critically maligned production by the late maestro Lorin Maazel.

I think it is most fitting for me to end with Beethoven, the great titan of classical music composition, who served as inspiration himself for many musicians to follow, and who is still an icon of his art today. He wrote music to some of Goethe’s poems but my favourite of his Goethe inspired pieces will always be his eponymous overture for Count Egmont, with its themes of heroism, which was later adopted as the unofficial anthem of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmoniker on top form:

“Music begins where words end.” ~ Richard Wagner