Marion and Macbeth

My second actor I admire who’s just turned 40 is someone that has once starred in the same film as Kate Winslet, but not in a scene together. She is five days older but I did my piece on Kate first as I knew Kate first.


The face on the weekend newspaper pullout drew me. But the pictures on the inside of her in her next film startled me. A young woman chose to become older, less conventionally or obviously attractive, and be in a gruelling, often sad story. To take on such a part intrigued as much as it impressed me. The film was La Vie En Rose. The actress – Marion Cotillard.

From then on, I began looking out for Marion; like Kate and a few others, it’s almost a given that her presence in a film will mean my presence at the cinema. I prefer Marion’s French speaking roles, although I have seen several of her Hollywood ones too. She enlivened Inception and gave it heart and psychology. She has told Petit Mouchoirs (AKA Little White Lies, I prefer the French title); she has been the magical, time travelling muse of Woody Allen; she’s fought for her job at a Belgian factory. And she was in Mary, along with Juliette Binoche – an elusive but brilliant film on the making of a Jesus epic, focussing on Ms Magdalene.

But my favourite role of Marion’s is Rust and Bone, which I review on here – a film of the stomach and the heart.

I waited to post this until I’d seen and thought about Marion’s latest role as Lady Macbeth.

Although I’d wanted this to be a post in praise of Marion, I knew before starting this that it would end as an appraisal of Macbeth.

So let me round up what I love about Marion before moving to Scotland. I want to counteract the negative recent discussions, pulling up some past comments she made, and say that I admire someone who doesn’t take what is the supposed accepted norm and isn’t afraid to ask questions about our supposed reality. That’s not ridiculous, it’s courageous.


Right, we’re in Caledonia now; it’s the 11th Century and snow is howling about our muddy mountain camp; blood and sweat make the protagonists’ hair stick up like a duck’s tail.

What I didn’t like about this Macbeth is that there was not enough Lady Macbeth. Or witches. And so I didn’t get to enjoy much of the person for whom I watched the film.

This meant that it was a very male focussed story, or truly, a very Michael Fassbender focussed story. It’s one of those plays who are basically vehicles for the acting prowess of eponymous hero.

I felt alienated as I need women in a story to have a way into it. And I didn’t like the person Macbeth, so I had little to hook onto.

Then was my big issue – I need to check the play to see if it’s better fleshed out in there. I’ll come back to what was missing as my snaky logic mind is going to take me to two other places before I get to elucidate this point. I’ll do the first natural link – abridgement.

I know that some of the witches’ lines from the play were cut, and I enjoy the witches most. I also noted that both witch and wife are temptresses, Eve and serpent in one, and that it’s easy to see this as an almost Tertullian view of women – the “devil’s gateway”. Tertullian is one church father I never let claim paternity rights, or sent a greetings card to. And it’s not a view I’m happy to see apparently propounded. I was surprised that Germaine Greer, queen of radical feminism (or at least, in its royal family) did not mention this in her insightful Oxford Very Short Introduction to Shakespeare, though she spends some pages on the play. Macbeth is about subverting the natural order, but that interpretation suggests that women being agents and instigators brings down horror on everyone. Again, it’s a Fall story, though Scotland here doesn’t exactly look like Eden.

I could tell that it was a film made by someone not familiar with Scotland. Indeed, director Justin Kurzel is Australian.

It looked like Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. It also looked how a non British person told me she pictured the country before living here. I thought that our films would make her think we lived in Jane Austen land. But she said that due to the films she’d seen, she imagined us to be gritty, muddy, bleak and rainy. This was just such a film.

My practical self leapt in – no-one who’s lived in Scotland would wear so little outdoors in winter. The Real Macbeth website shows him in head armour and with furry animal skins as a cloak. This is a sensible Scots warrior. However, I noted Inverness was too cold to shag without all your clothes on, according to this film. Like Shakespeare in Love, the key couple said their lines intently whilst in the act. That’s about all these two films have in common.

I have a big bugbear about sense of place and architecture especially. As I can recognise buildings from a glimpse and often date them, I knew instantly where the filming took place and that it was a) far from the place that real Macbeth lived, and b) totally the wrong period.

Bamburgh Castle looks wonderful, but it’s not Scottish, and worse, it wasn’t built in Macbeth’s day! Castles were a Norman invention, and Macbeth died before they got building.

That brings me to an even more upsetting piece of location. The oldest parts of Ely Cathedral are c100 years younger than the actual King Macbeth. The Normans built structures greater than had ever been seen by Dark Age dwellers. No palace ever had spaces the size of Ely Cathedral’s 248ft long nave, save Westminster Hall. Yet the idea of cathedrals for palaces was also used in Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth – but with an interesting contrast.

Shekhar also had high crane shots down onto tiny people; it was part of his mis en scene to create a dark, frightening world where Elizabeth was not yet an established queen. He also chose stone for destiny, as something outlasting and greater than even a great prince. Durham cathedral, the location for the royal palace of the first film, was a male dominated world of court, and Elizabeth had yet to come into her own.

When she’s done so in The Golden Age, the stone shade shifts: it’s warmer, the sets are brighter, there’s more colour. Shekhar leaves the brooding Celtic North East for the Ship of the East Anglian fens. The location of Ely cathedral signifies that although we’re in the same palace, Elizabeth’s in control; it’s now the court of a woman. And yet that same cathedral serves Macbeth as the setting for the downward spiralling darkness of a male dominated world but woman generated ambition that leads to murder and madness. Similar shooting, contrasting story and symbolism. Ely Cathedral also features in my story.

Elizabeth and Lady Macbeth dine in the same room – the Lady Chapel of Ely – but that Scot would have seen no nodding ogees – for Gothic came in well after her time. The Macbeths sleep in a bed that’s 16th Century – Elizabeth could have done so, but not they.

Obviously, a look has been chosen that ignores the furniture of the time, which was brightly painted – but it jangled on me every time I saw the Norman aisles turned into bedrooms that they never could’ve been. And there was stained glass in the shots – also not yet invented. And under the 14th Century famous lantern tower, 11th Century Macbeth curses with Satan’s name – which surprised me was allowed in a living church.

What I minded most was that the film never gave a sense of why the Macbeths want the throne so badly. We’ve barely met the Macbeths before they’re desiring and scheming – wouldn’t they believe the kingship prophecy would fulfil itself, without so quickly and ineptly making it happen through foul means? The first time Lady Macbeth speaks, she’s onto the “Unsex me here” speech, so understated that I didn’t feel her evil incantation had reached sufficient climax to execute the execution. Without a real impetus and build up towards the desire for the act, the central piece of plot fails.

It also seems a ridiculously conceived murder. Two people in the camp stand to gain from Duncan’s death. One runs – yes he could be a culprit, or understandably, he’s fled for fear of his own life. The other chief suspect kills Duncan’s guards in a fury that surely says – 1) I can kill violently and at close range, 2) I’m overacting to cover up. Duncan dies not through accident or disappearance, but a very obvious murder in Macbeth’s own home! Wouldn’t need Miss Marple for anyone to get Macbeth on trial!

He is a horrid king, not a hero as some say of him, and so I cannot understand how ruled as long as he did, nor did I want to spend time with him on set.

The scene of Macduff’s wife and children’s death was so horrific that I couldn’t see why people would stand by as it happened. It’s not in the play that way. And I felt that Macbeth would be killed at that moment – no need to wait for the avenging one who was ripped untimely from his mother’s womb. What a strange plot that is! Aren’t those delivered through caesarean considered born of a woman?

In thinking of how that prophecy could have been better fulfilled – someone begotten not created? – I wish to nearly round up by commenting on the lack of magic and how it was missed in a medium that would have done those supernatural elements so proud. The film tried to be semi rational and it failed because it took out those elements of an essentially magical story. The more literal and rational you make Macbeth, the less it works.

I am angry at how witches are portrayed, when they have fought to have their sisters freed from the vilifying paranoia that has dogged them so long. The witches here are more seers than hags. If they were men, they’d be called wise men and prophets. Witchcraft is the craft of the wise, yet these sisters are definitely weird, and I’d have preferred in the Terry Pratchett sense. Shakespeare’s contemporaries may have seen witches as but is it fair to still portray them so today?

Visually, the scene that remained with me was the orangey tiered mists of the final battle. We’d seen orange before, in flames, and the fire and blood connoted was therefore fitting and powerful.

I struggle with tragedy as a genre – this is too tragic. At least Romeo and Juliet do something for their families and city potentailly. The Picturehouse brochure tries to connect Macbeth to popular political TV shows House of Cards and Game of Thrones, and to the war on terror, but I didn’t feel anything very contemporary in this film, other than the stylistics.

I am reading a Scots penned book on the real Macbeth and may return to discuss this or with any insights I have about the play; but as a vehicle for social commentary or psychology, I felt I didn’t move very far.

But as I sought out both play and historic figure (somewhat unlike Shakespeare’s king), the film must have had some success.

Back to my novel campaign and I’ll be back on Monday with an English centenary


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