Year Produced: 2006
James McAvoy – Joe Macbeth
Keeley Hawes – Ella Macbeth
Joseph Millson – Billy Banquo
Vincent Reagan – Duncan Docherty
Richard Armitage – Peter Macduff
Shakespeare died today, 400 years ago, in a place as far removed from our modern age as this adaptation is from its source. And yet, it’s somehow fitting that my insane quest to watch a year’s worth of Shakespeare adaptations—films, television, theater, musicals, any format I can get my hands on—begins with this one. It isn’t the best adaptation of Macbeth out there (though it’s certainly not the worst) and there are some clear and glaring editorial choices that distract from what is otherwise a fairly compelling set of performances, but overall, the decision to modernize this play by setting it in the kitchen of an up-and-coming restaurant adds a new, well, flavor to the story. The battlefield is a stainless steel kitchen—competitive, intense, with knives and laughter in equal measure; the witches become garbage collectors, both repellant and suitably prophetic in those shadowy hours between night and morning.
The pacing of the play is tight, coming in at around 90 minutes, but there’s no substantial losses to the plot. If anything, tightening it up and modernizing it gives the audience a chance to passively observe the raw emotion of certain scenes, rather than being led through them with long speeches in modern verse. An example of this from late in the film, in what would’ve been Act 4, Scene 3. Macduff comes home to find that his wife and daughters have been killed. In the play, the original text is moving:
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so,
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on,
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee! Naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now.
In the film, however, all we see of this whole exchange is Peter Macduff, tall and proud and restrained, standing in the doorway of his house as a police officer speaks to him. He crumples, his legs giving way as grief overtakes him. He weeps, and the camera slowly approaches, but never reaches him. There is nothing about taking it like a man, or about revenge, or any of it. His grief is palpable and chilling.
James McAvoy was 25 or 26 when he filmed this, and his youth and wiry energy serve the role well. The relationship between his Macbeth and Vincent Reagan as Duncan Docherty (imagined not as a king but as a celebrity chef who has made his way out of the kitchen and into TV stardom) is complex, father-son, and yet markedly not. You really feel how much Macbeth owes him, how much he looks up to him, and yet how grating it is for a man of his ambition and talent and drive to be working so hard to earn some other man’s prestige. Keeley Hawes’ Ella Macbeth, good ol’ Lady M herself, is blonde, and pretty, and has a million daggers behind her eyes that nobody even notices. Lady Macbeth is such a meaty role for any actress, and she nails it, alternately teasing and seducing her own husband, flattering his pride, spurring him to terrible action.
There are a lot of things from the play that are cut from the modernized text, but rendered visually. For example, the drink of choice for our titular character is a whole pint of milk—a clear reference to the ‘milk of human kindness.’ There are speeches about respect, respecting an animal, noting that the meat tastes better when the pig is killed cleanly, without suffering—and yet the truth of it is, we are all animals, and perhaps that sweetness is a lie we tell ourselves simply to survive.
The one glaring downside of this adaptation is that it feels like the BBC could only afford exactly two very small and very obvious pieces of music: The jazz-keyboard stealth-mode piece, and the sad-piano funeral-march, and both are utterly out of place and overused about 95% of the time. Almost to comical effect. But that’s not the actors’ fault, so, there ya go.
This was not the first time I’d watched this movie, but watching it was what gave me the idea to start this blog in the first place. It got me thinking about adaptations of classic works, what a challenge it is for the screenwriter, director, editors, everyone involved, to decide what to keep and what to change, how to explore the essential, immutable themes of the original play while still shifting our perspectives and expectations. It got me thinking, too, back to a conversation I had years ago with someone who firmly asserted that there was ‘no point’ in watching any kind of modern adaptation of any of Shakespeare’s works. They, this person said, should only ever be performed ‘the way they were intended.’ But what does that actually mean? Especially for a play like this one, that was written in the very early 17th century, but based off of a figure from the 11th century who didn’t actually do what happened in the play, because it was written to flatter King James I was a descendant of Malcolm. So what is your real stance on true and unyielding veracity? Should it be staged in the 11th century? The 17th? Is there space in this world for a lower-budget but still fiercely-acted version with prophetic garbage collectors and power-mad chefs?
My answer: Absolutely. Adaptations are essential, I believe, to keeping stories alive. And that’s exactly what I want to explore in this year-long quest.