Watching a film adaptation of Macbeth, or any similar canonical work of theatre or literature, is an intrinsically different viewing experience from the usual. Knowing what’s going to happen, more or less – the only omission I noted here was Birnam Wood coming to life – you find yourself devoting a greater proportion of your attention to the mise-en-scene, the performances, the use of sound, and so forth.
Scotsman Angus Macfadyen’s adaptation – in addition to directing he also plays the title role – relocates the play in time to the present day, as signalled by the likes of African-American actor Harry Lennix playing Banquo; guns co-existing with daggers; magazine covers presenting Lady Macbeth as a style icon; and, above all, the locations for much of the narrative being the interiors of black limousines – that of Macbeth’s has the personalised number plate Lady Mcb, a nice touch that shows the power dynamics of their relationship before we get into the familiar text.
This stylistic device means that Macfadyen makes extensive use of close-ups and shot-reverse-shot, closing the play in rather than opening it out. The confined interiors make one think that much of the time the film must have been constructed in the editing rather than in the camera, with the actors delivering their performances individually rather than playing off one another as they were recorded by multiple cameras.
This sense of the importance of the editors’ contributions is further enhanced by the frequent use of superimpositions. These, it is important to note, are not used in a particularly obvious or consistent way – it is not that the ghost Banquo appears to Macbeth as a superimposition, for instance, instead being rendered normally to him but invisible to his wife.
The film’s sense of place is more ambiguous. Exteriors were shot in Virginia USA, but whether they are supposed to be Scotland, New York, or wherever is difficult to say. Being grey – except for three brief moments, two being gunshots vaguely recalling Hitchcock’s Spellbound, the film is shot entirely in monochrome – flat and featureless, they have the characteristics of what Gilles Deleuze described as the any-space-whatever.
This impression is strengthened by the way Macfadyen tends to shoot the exteriors, one that contrasts with the aforementioned limousine scenes, through use of more theatre-style long shots and tableaux. Suffice to say that if the Virginia film board were hoping that this film would showcase their state as an attractive place to visit or film in – unless you wanted to make a Stalker or suchlike – they probably didn’t get their money’s worth.
In sum, an interesting experiment, but not the sort of adaptation you’d want to use in a high school English class.