"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,
Macbeth, Thane of Glamis, is promised a great future by three witches. Their hollow promises drive him to a desperate act, spurred on by his wife, Lady Macbeth. Together the two spiral into madness, one giving in and one forced out. Together they create an amazing story, all circling around the kingship of Scotland, a prize for any man. The central concern isn't taking the crown though but keeping it as murderous ambition and destiny touch the lives of every character.
I watched this in comparison to Orson Welles' "Macbeth" (1948). It's an interesting contrast as the two on opposite sides of the spectrum when it comes to style and interpretation. Welles' set looks strange and as usual he's chewing the scenery. His version feels far more populist, cutting so much out of the play and rearranging dialogue. The end result though is coherent and fast paced. The acting leaves something to be desired but it's the kind of interpretation that an audience unfamiliar with Shakespeare could understand and enjoy. The 1979 version is far more faithful to the play, an unabridged translation to the silver screen. It also stars some big names such as Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth. McKellen gives an amazing performance with far more subtlety than Welles. We do get closer to McKellen and are able to gauge his emotional reactions better than Welles but McKellen demonstrates more range and does a good job of communicating his growing madness to the audience. Welles' performance has a more shouty, bombastic quality that lacks the quiet contemplation needed in moments when Macbeth is questioning his motives and actions. I did like that the McKellen version has all of his soliloquies almost acting as an internal monologue. He turns to the camera and speaks, other characters seemingly unable to hear his dialogue. Judi Dench, on the other hand, may not have been the best selection for Lady Macbeth. In the play, Macbeth's wife is cold and calculating, with a vicious streak that questions Macbeth's masculinity and goads him into going after Duncan. Her ambitions seem to outweigh her husband's and she appears to be the driving force behind her husband after he loses his nerve. Dench never seems to embody the cruelty inherent in the character and maybe that's because in real life, I've always pictured her as a nice person. The sleepwalking scene was interesting, a far more hypnotic and manic scene than the 1948 version.
One of my big problems with the 1978 film was the set. Every scene involved close up shots of the actors faces which was nice, to see the emotion in their faces. But it also hid the fact that there was no set to speak of. There was just a giant black background and the beginning started with all of the actors sitting in a giant circle, which breaks up the illusion that this is supposed to take place in Scotland. The film suffers from the same problem that Olivier's "Hamlet" (1948) does. It doesn't use the camera to its full advantage and as a result, the film feel static and heavy. While this is less apparent in "Macbeth", what is the point of the movie if there's no set? They might as well have staged an actual theatre performance and filmed it. This is such a lost opportunity as the director could really have played with the concept of setting. Many Shakespeare film adaptations today set the plays in different time periods. "Romeo + Juliet" is a Baz Luhrman adaptation with the film set in modern day Florida and it gave the film a twist, making it more accessible to younger generations. Also, Shakespeare's words are difficult enough to comprehend on their own. A set can help inform the audience about when the play is taking place and help decipher the mood and the dialogue when it pertains to place. It's difficult to picture Birnam Wood moving to Dunsinane Hill on your own but it's easier to comprehend if it's shown visually.
This also leads into my complaint about the costumes. As there's no set to aid the audience about when and where this is taking place, the next obvious option is to look to the costumes. In this film though, the costumes are a haphazard mess. In the first scene with King Duncan, everyone look as if they're in Edwardian dress until Malcolm shows up, wearing a beige turtleneck which looks very 1970s. Lady Macbeth's costume is so bland as to be from any time period and Duncan looks like he belongs in a Greek temple.
Comparing the two versions, overall I much prefer Orson Welles version. It doesn't take itself too seriously and is immensely more enjoyable than the McKellen version because he only includes the essential dialogue. I didn't even mind that the dialogue was rearranged and assigned to different characters. It was slightly jarring at first but didn't detract from the story. I do like McKellen's Macbeth more than Welles though. In a perfect world I would combine the two films but if you ever have the choice between the two I would go with the more entertaining version from 1948.
If you'd like to read my review of "Macbeth" (1948) click here